The European Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager has told technology companies that the “time is over” for them to escape rules in the digital world that apply in the offline world.
The Danish politician has been a thorn in the side of big tech companies misusing their power. In July, she issued Google a record $5bn fine for breaching monopoly laws by forcing phone manufacturers to install Google apps on the device.
Speaking at Web Summit, Europe’s largest technology conference, she outlined her vision for a digital future that ensures digital innovation works for everyone.
“This future is arriving so fast that it becomes increasingly difficult to say what shape it will take,” she told the audience from the main stage.
While Vestager is tough on misbehaving tech companies, she is keen to champion the benefits of technology to society: from making our lives easier in small ways, to changing the lives of those with inhibiting diseases or disabilities.
But society needs to tackle the darker consequences of technology, she says, such as the spreading of harmful information that undermines democracy.
Likening the digital revolution to riding a rollercoaster, she said:
“The thing about riding a rollercoaster is it can be great fun. but you only ride it when you are sure you’re going to be safe. And I think that is the fundamental challenge that we are facing right now – that we are going to be safe.”
Rules can promote innovation
One of the central arguments against regulation is that red tape impairs innovation. Vestager, however, disagrees and insists that competition laws, in fact, promote innovation.
“The innovation we want is not the innovation that is made by getting around the rules,” she said. “The reason why innovation matters is because it makes our lives better.”
Nor should democracy be sacrificed for innovation, she added. Instead, it should protect those values.
She added that good rules can make “innovation thrive. It can be the necessary challenge you need to get creative.”
Making direct reference to the company she fined $5bn, Vestager described Google as one of our “great innovators”, but caveated with the question: “why would we put all of our hopes of the future in just one company?”
The way forward is to keep markets open and promotes open source software that benefits everyone, she says.
Margrethe Vestager: “What happens online, doesn’t remain online.”
Data has long been touted as the ‘new oil’, but society is still unsure how to handle its most abundant resource. And when companies form a data cartel, the impact on businesses and democracy could be disastrous.
“Data gives us a new understanding of the world,” said Vestager. “But when just a few companies hold lots and lots of data, it can make it very very hard for anyone else to compete against them. And without competition, consumers are not well served.”
Vestager believes that this abuse of personal data has corroded trust in companies among consumers.
But there is good news, she explained. With the “right rules,” it is possible to fix the problem.
“The time is over when the digital world could escape the rules that apply for us in our offline life,” she said. “What happens online, doesn’t remain online.”
Drawing a comparison to the standards that protect consumers from being killed due to dodgy wiring in their home applications, Vestager shows that it’s not a culture that should be difficult to adopt.
We expect authorities to tackle piracy, terrorism, or price fixing in the offline world – and that should be no different in a digital world, she explained.
One of the ways that could happen is through the European Commission’s proposal that platforms are “obliged to take down terrorist propaganda within the hour.”
Data misuse is undermining democracy
Recent political campaigns have shown how our own data can be used against us to influence our vote. This becomes clear with examples such as yesterday’s report into the misuse of personal data during the Brexit referendum.
“One of the things that is clear is the data belongs to us,” said Vestager. “It is mine. It is my property. And we want to be able to control what happens to it.”
Margrethe Vestager also stressed the importance of tackling the threat of cyberattackers during elections.
“Because it is obvious, that technology is changing our democracy, our society, our markets, the business opportunity and it does it at the same time. So we have to do a number of things at the same time.”
She also said that citizens have an obligation to teach children how to grow up in the digital world, while businesses have a duty to take responsibility.
“When we help each other to make technology safe, then create the trust that will enable a digital society in human scale, so that technology will serve us and not serve itself.”