Silicon Valley’s notorious nemesis, Margrethe Vestager, has been planning to end her term since the European Union’s antitrust enforcer has laid out a long term plan to intensify scrutiny of the world’s big tech companies.
Vestager being the EU’s competition commissioner, is one of the world’s most important tech regulator. Since the year 2014, she has slapped Google with eye-popping multibillion-dollar antitrust penalties, ordered Apple and Amazon to pay back their taxes and fined Facebook due to their WhatsApp acquisition, the flagship enforcement cases have struck fear in the Silicon Valley and have drawn attention in Washington.
It is now her final year in office, and the 50-year-old Danish politician has laid out the groundwork for a new phase of regulation which goes beyond her term end in October.
She has also planned a report which will mean to guide EU competition policies in the era of digitization. Feedback from companies, business groups, and experts have shown that many see the requirement of a more regulated policy and when it will be published in March, three expert advisers will guide the report and it will reflect the need for new and tougher rules.
During an Associated Press recently, she said- “The most important thing is that the majority of input needs to be pro-enforcement. The digital technology industry will need more time to shape itself, and we are way beyond that situation.” No details regarding the shape the new enforcement have been revealed yet, but this might not fare well with the US technology biggies, who have landed in Vestager’s crosshairs.“
Vestager has formed a down-to-earth image, who likes to knit elephants during a meeting and this belies her formidable powers of enforcement.
In the past, she has opened three antitrust cases against tech giant Google, and this included the one which resulted in a record EUR 4.3 billion ($5 billion) fine since Google forced cellphone makers to use their software on Android phones. Another EUR 2.4 billion ($2.8 billion) penalty had been slapped on Google since it manipulated the shopping search results. She aimed at wrapping a probe before her term ended, the probe being whether not Google blocked rivals from their Adsense ad service.
Vestager also ordered Apple to pay back up to EUR 13 billion ($15 billion) in back taxes from Ireland. Apple CEO Tim Cook called this situation as a “total political crap” and President Donald Trump also supported Tim Cook and referred Vestager as the “tax lady” who “really hated the US.”
The EU competition commissioner that has a 900-strong staff is unusually powerful in the Brussels bureaucracy since it has the power to enforce bloc-wide rules, and this gives them the power to take on countries and companies. Other departments have also shared regulatory duties with national governments. Vestager’s job included approving or rejecting mergers and investigating their cartels and antitrust behavior. She also made sure that the EU states didn’t give tax breaks to individual companies which were not available to other corporations, legitimate business strategy in the US but illegal in Europe.
Information which is collected by web browsers, apps, smartphones, and other devices is considered to be enormously valuable to companies since they can provide insight and details about an individual’s buying habits as well as movements. Data could further power artificial intelligence or could be used to show targeted advertisements. Vestager has been concerned with that a small group of companies who might corner the market and abuse their power.
She has also confronted the problem with an informal probe that was launched last year and this questions whether or not online shopping giant Amazon might be using user data to gain an edge on third-party merchants, who would be their customers as well as rivals. She hopes to decide that within six months of her remaining stint, whether a formal investigation needs to be opened or not.
Many people are still not sure how they could exercise control over their own information. New European privacy rules were introduced last year which gave a head a start, and they made companies be more transparent with customers about what they do with user data. But consumers are still overwhelmed regarding the detailed consent forms where third-party seeks to track information.
Vestager, who is a member of a small left-wing political party believes in free markets and went on to say that the private sector can play a role in finding solutions. She said- “I think you need products which will help you exercise your rights. Independent digital assistants which would make sure that user’s privacy settings are maintained no matter where they go. That kind of stuff.”
Vestager’s party was founded by her great-grandfather, who was Denmark’s deputy prime minister and economy minister before he took up her post in Brussels in late 2014. She reportedly kept a sculpture of a hand with an extended middle finger in her office, which was a gift from a Danish trade union that was angered by her welfare cuts. She is apparently one of the inspirations for the lead character in the Danish TV show “Borgen,” which is about an ambitious minor politician who tries to become the country’s first female prime minister.
Vestager’s term will end in October 2029, but she is well expecting to continue, but this seems unlikely since her party is not in power in Denmark and it doesn’t look like they will be able to get the power back in the upcoming elections.
Vestager brushed off the criticism that she received after she targeted U.S. companies and said that they have propped up European firms. She also took on Starbucks, McDonald’s and opened an investigation this month in Nike’s tax arrangements. Other targets include Italian automaker Fiat and Russian gas giant Gazprom.
Vestager added- “Sometimes things are unlikely, but they are not impossible. I am in the middle of something and we are not done yet.” At this, she referred to the new era of digital regulation.
She continued- “When you look at our cases yo, you will realize that what the common thing between them is not nationality. It is the fact that they are multinationals.”
She said that her aim was to keep the competition fair.
Vestager said- “That was the idea prior to the world becoming digital, And it becomes an even more important aspect when the world was actually digitized since things are so fast moving.”