She’s baaaack: Vestager returns, more powerful than ever
Executives at Facebook, Google, Apple and other Big Tech firms would probably be happy to never again hear the name of Margrethe Vestager, the Danish competition supremo at the European Commission, who won fame (or infamy, depending on your point of view) as the scourge of tech companies accused of monopolistic practices in Europe, with a reputation for handing out multi-billion-dollar fines like they were Pop-Tarts. That’s too bad for the techies, however, because Vestager has just been reappointed as competition regulator and also named to an even more powerful position in the European Commission, picking up the new title of executive vice-president with responsibility for overall digital strategy. The nomination was made by EC president-elect Ursula von der Leyen. That means in addition to policing anti-competitive behaviors, Vestager will now also be in charge of all standard-setting and rule-making for sweeping regulatory areas including data protection, AI ethics and mobile networks, writes Lionel Laurent in a new op-ed for Bloomberg.
- Lest anyone deceive themselves that she might soften her approach, Vestager has declared that she considers the two issues of data ownership and fair competition to be closely linked, and intends to place them at the center of her rule-making and enforcement efforts.
- The EU already has ongoing investigations open into areas like Google’s job search; Libra, Facebook’s new cryptocurrency; and Amazon’s alleged bullying of its vendors. Google has already paid $9.1 billion in fines following three separate probes initiated by Vestager since 2014. Her role levying fines on American companies has made her a favorite target of President Donald Trump’s Twitter wrath.
- Not that it’s any comfort for American tech firms, but Vestager is also viewed in a dim light by many big European companies and national politicians in Germany and France, having played a central role in blocking this year’s proposed merger of Alstom and Siemens.
- Crucially, in her new position Vestager will also be responsible for coordinating EU policies on the taxation of tech companies, according to Politico — an extremely contentious area that has already spurred major lobbying by Big Tech on both sides of the Atlantic.
- Vestager will also have to tackle thorny issues surrounding Huawei, the Chinese tech firm that has been leading efforts to build out 5G networks in Europe.
- Looking ahead, pundits speculate Vestager may move to expand EU data protection laws, including the famed (or again, infamous) GDPR, which has forced publishers and tech platforms around the world to enhance their privacy policies if they wish to do business in Europe. That’s very much contrary to the wishes of tech companies, which were hoping to roll back some of GDPR’s more onerous provisions.
- The timing couldn’t be worse for Google and Facebook, coming as they also face serious investigations of alleged consumer abuses and anti-competitive behaviors in the U.S.