Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager delivers a speech
in Lisbon in November. (Patricia de Melo Moreira/AFP/Getty Images)
BRUSSELS — Margrethe
Vestager is an avid Twitter user who likes to post photos of
flowers and cityscapes from her native Denmark.
Her account is
also a means of tracking her travels as Europe’s chief antitrust
cop and a scourge of big technology companies. Here she is at the
European Parliament. Here she is speaking in Washington and
at Harvard and
delivering a Ted
talk in New York. Here she is imposing a $2.9
billion fine on Google for “abusing its
search dominance.” And slapping
Facebook with a fine for “wrong/misleading
information when it took over WhatsApp.” And threatening
higher taxes for Apple and other digital
companies that do business in Europe.
was scrutinizing tech companies long before the latest scandals
about Russian election interference through social media and
misuse of data by Cambridge
Analytica. But she said those episodes “changed the context
as there is a wonderful side to big data in a variety of different
kinds and ways, there is a dark side to it as well,” she said in
an interview. “And I think that has been much more obvious.”
disclosure that Cambridge Analytica deployed personal data from
millions of Facebook users, without their permission, in the
service of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has fueled privacy
concerns most prominently. Vestager said that, as a consumer, she
worries about data privacy, too.
she and other regulators are also looking closely at how
technology companies harness vast troves of data to enrich
themselves, quash competition and exert control over their users.
value of data is skyrocketing: For example, Facebook made
$11.8 billion on advertising in the first three months of 2018, up
50 percent from the same period a year earlier.
watchdogs have often viewed the privacy concerns surrounding data
and technology as unworthy of their full regulatory firepower. Yet
as more value is ascribed to peoples’ information, that is
starting to change.
Federal Cartel Office is investigating whether Facebook abused its
dominant position to force users to accept its terms and
conditions and hand over information that the company then sold to
advertisers. The case is limited to a single country. But the
outcome could set a model for others to follow.
issues are not clear, at least not yet,” Vestager said. “We follow
with interest what the Germans are doing in the space between
competition law enforcement and privacy.”
European frustrations with technology companies, many of which are
American, were evidenced by the European Parliament’s endorsement
last month of a nonbinding report that advocated breaking up
Google. Vestager said a breakup is “not very much my
many European analysts agree that data concerns could evolve into
other competition concerns.
has such an economic value. It’s sometimes characterized as the
raw materials of the new economy,” said Christopher Kuner,
co-chair of the Brussels Privacy Hub at the Free University of
Brussels, who said he has watched his students seek to bring
together privacy and antitrust issues in novel ways.
hard to see how this wouldn’t become more important in the future.
There seems to be growing concern about the market power of
digital services,” he said.
European Commission already reviews whether companies that are
merging could bring together a volume of data that would close the
market to competitors. Vestager said she has also directed members
of her team to explore whether control over data could create a
violation of antitrust law more broadly.
regulators face a range of challenges in taking on data concerns.
It can be hard to assign a value to data. Some can easily be
shared or copied. And the economic value of some user information
can be fleeting: News Corp. bought the social networking site
MySpace for $580 million in 2005, only to sell it for $35 million
six years later.
said she sometimes doubted the value of the targeted advertising
that drives much of the companies’ business. Her pixie-cut hair
is unapologetically salt and pepper, but, she said, “I get a
lot of advertising on how to cover your gray hair. So obviously
they don’t know that I wear it with pride.”
said that her job, however, is to keep watch over the industry, no
matter the effectiveness of its advertising.
broad new set of privacy regulations will
go into effect in the European Union, forcing companies to hand
over far more control of personal data to the 500 million
consumers of the bloc. Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg
has said that U.S. Facebook users will also be granted some of
those increased controls.
hearings with Zuckerberg last month, lawmakers appeared to
be considering imposing new regulations on the way Facebook and
other Internet giants use their users’ information.
so far, U.S. antitrust regulators have been cautious about getting
involved in what they say is an evolving market for privacy. Some
have said they are worried that too much regulation could stifle
innovation — and they say that as consumer attitudes change about
how much value to place in privacy, regulators should stand aside
unless there are clear market abuses.
mentality regarding free platforms may well be changing. I know
that for me, it has changed,” said Makan Delrahim, the assistant
attorney general for the Justice Department’s antitrust division,
speech last month. “Antitrust enforcers
may need to take a close look to see whether competition is
suffering and consumers are losing out on new innovations as a
result of misdeeds by a monopoly incumbent.”
Europeans are skeptical of the cautious U.S. approach.
is itself valuable, and people give it in exchange for services,”
said Alec Burnside, a lawyer at the Dechert law firm in Brussels
who has taken part in antitrust complaints against Google. “I
think they are wrong in believing that data must have all the
characteristics of cash.”
Ariès contributed to this report.
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