Execs for American Big Tech companies including Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon have probably been enjoying a few sleepless nights since the reappointment of Margrethe Vestager, the bare knuckles European competition supremo, to her post as European Commissioner for Competition, along with her elevation to a powerful new position, Executive Vice-President for Digital Affairs. Now it appears all their worst corporate nightmares were true: in three hours of barnburner testimony to the European Parliament’s industry, internal market and economic affairs committees, Vestager laid out plans to double down on her previous enforcement efforts, including moving beyond multi-billion-dollar fines to new penalties for tech companies that transgress. Politico and The Financial Times summarize the salient points.
- Vestager listed priorities including reforming taxation to keep pace with the era of digital economy and ensuring that EU citizens have full control of their personal data — two critical areas for Big Tech companies, signaling more legal and regulatory collisions in the near future.
- On taxation, Vestager said the EU supports OECD efforts to align global tax rules but is prepared to act unilaterally if there’s no progress there. She also gave encouragement to EU member states that have already imposed digital taxes. Ominously, she forecast more use of Commission powers to force companies to pay huge back taxes if they are found to have avoid them with cross-border accounting moves, similar to the €13 billion sum Apple was ordered to pay to Ireland.
- In the past she has indicated that she considers the issues of personal data ownership and fair competition to be closely related. Her testimony expanded on these points, as Vestager took swipes at “surveillance capitalism,” a thinly veiled reference to data-hungry U.S. Big Tech.
- Expanded penalties will include measures besides fines, Vestager warned, while leaving it vague: “For the future we will be much more aware as to what it’s needed in order for competition to come back in a market that has been plagued with illegal behaviour by one or more companies.”
- Positive point: while warning that regulators had the power to order the break up of digital giants, she expressed reluctance, saying she would prefer less intrusive measures.
- More quotes: “My pledge is not to make Europe like China or like America. My pledge is to make Europe more like itself.”
- “Some say China has all the data, and the U.S. has all the money. But in Europe, we have purpose.”
- “One thing I have learned from surveillance capitalism is that it’s not you searching Google, but Google searching you. We need to regulate how companies collect, store and use data so it helps society.”