In an exclusive interview, the EU’s antitrust chief, Margrethe Vestager, told EURACTIV.com that the US social network Facebook is on her radar screen but not the e-commerce giant Amazon, which is also suspected of abusing its dominant position.
Since she took office in 2014, Vestager has had an intense mandate slapping American tech companies with record fines and looking into hundreds of “sweetheart deals” between European governments and multinationals. But her time is not over yet.
Margrethe Vestager is the EU’s commissioner for competition. She spoke with EURACTIV’s Jorge Valero.
You said recently that you were happy with the remedies Google implemented in response to the Commission’s €2.4 billion fine imposed against the company’s online shopping services. But competitors say they are not happy…
Actually, I didn’t say I was happy about it, because that would require that we have a real decision. It was merely to state some of the facts, because we monitor the choices that Google made to live up to the decision.
Google has chosen to make an auction-based access to its shopping box. We are still monitoring it. Now we have its second compliance report.
In a neutral way, what I said is that we see more rivals in the shopping box, that we do see changes. But I was quite careful to be neither happy nor unhappy about it because there is no decision yet.
When will the assessment of the remedies conclude?
It is very difficult to put a timing on it. We don’t have a deadline. But the Google case is a high priority and so it is the monitoring of the company’s choices to live up to the decision. We never consider things to be done by the decision. It merely starts a new process.
There is another decision to come on Google, related to its Android platform…
For us, Android seems to be a very good operating system. It is perfectly fine with us. Open source systems usually have a very high quality because you have more eyes and more skilled people coming to look at it. I am all for it. We see how it is useful for many people. We easily see the qualities.
The case is not about Android. Our suspicion is that Android has been used for Google to stay dominant in mobile platforms. It is a case about dominance in search engines.
When the decision comes on this case, maybe next month, could the remedy be that Google’s search tool cannot be embedded in Android operating systems anymore?
I would never speculate about a decision we don’t know when we will able to launch.
Is it in the coming weeks, before the summer break?
I cannot give you any timing.
Given that Android is one of the main pillars of Google’s business, could we expect a fine at least similar to the previous one of €2.4 billion?
Again, I cannot comment on that. What I can say is that we consider this to be a very important case.
If our suspicions are proven right, then it is a behaviour that it is been going on for quite some time. While we were all getting mobile in our search pattern, because more and more people got smartphones and tablets, if our suspicions are right, at the same time Google’s strategy was to use Android to remain a dominant player when it comes to search.
Besides Google, other tech companies are amassing immense power and influence. Amazon is not only the dominant player in online shopping, but it also hosts web services and is growing as an audiovisual platform. Some voices even propose regulating it as a utility. Is there a risk that the company may be abusing its huge volume to control different markets and sectors?
We had one Amazon case on the e-books market, which was more specific. We’ve solved it in two years, quite fast in terms of competition cases.
Regarding your question, I asked myself those same questions. But we don’t have an Amazon case on that issue you raised and we don’t have complaints either.
Facebook is also in the European Parliament’s crosshairs. MEPs requested you to look into the company from the competition angle, and even split the social media firm. Are you concerned about its vast power in the realm of social media?
My concern is more about whether we get the right choices. I would like to have a Facebook in which I pay a fee each month, but I would have no tracking and advertising and the full benefits of privacy. It is a provoking thought after all the Facebook scandal. This market is not being explored. There is something coming up in France with some potential, but still, it is not there yet.
We don’t have a Facebook case based on dominance. We follow very closely what they do in Germany, where they took into the interaction between competition law and privacy, to see if the dominance as a social media allowed Facebook to take more data from people than they were allowed to. The more data you have the better you can target advertising.
Are you looking into the German case to see whether you could replicate it at the European level?
It is not a given. It depends on the legislation. The Germans are doing this case through the lens of German legislation. But obviously, we take a very close interest in what colleagues are doing.
So far we think that if Facebook lives up to our new privacy rules then it cannot happen. Because the new privacy rules said that companies cannot take more data from you than what they need in order to provide you with the service.
Therefore, if Facebook complies fully with the EU’s new data privacy regulation you would not follow Germany’s example…
At least it would be a starting point but it is not a given. We always reserve our position to say we might. I am just being very prudent because when we don’t have a case, we don’t have it.
But here you are exploring…
Yes, we follow this very closely, because when you have companies that play a very dominant role in the marketplace, then it is interesting for us to see what is happening.
To sum up, you don’t see a case with Amazon, while with Facebook you are looking into it…
“Looking into” sounds as if we have an investigation. We are following it. We talk about the GAFAs (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon) as one concept, but they are very different businesses, with very different approaches in various issues.
A big part of your workload also came from the ‘sweetheart deals’ signed between few European countries including Luxembourg and multinationals (Luxleaks) to barely pay any taxes. Last week you said you are considering opening new cases. Are there a lot of tax rulings to look into yet?
We still have the case about the scheme set up by the UK, the McDonald’s and Ikea cases. It is too early to say if new cases would come up from the investigation we have ongoing.
But Luxembourg, followed by The Netherlands, Ireland and Cyprus are changing the legislation. For example, the Fiat case, in which a company was financed within a holding, could not repeat itself with these changes. Many of the ‘Luxleaks cases’ were similar to this one.
The political supremo during those years in Luxembourg was Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. His argument was that he was not aware of the rulings because tax authorities worked independently. Did you ever ask Juncker about his own insights in order to understand what happened in Luxembourg, even in an informal conversation?
No, never. I find that it is more prudent not to discuss cases. Also to avoid any suspicion that we would take any kind of instruction. The only exchange of words we had is when he told me: “you do what you find best”.
You said that you would like to continue as commissioner for competition. But you are named as French President Macron’s preferred candidate for Commission President. Do you see yourself prepared to become Commission chief? Or is it something that you don’t want to consider?
It goes for any job that you don’t really know before you are there. I would very much like to continue [as commissioner for competition] because I think we are onto something.
Not to insult you, but one should not believe anything that is written in the papers. Of course, I take it very much to the heart that people speak nicely about me.
Are you referring to being Macron’s favourite?
Have you ever had a conversation with him about your future?
No. And it is in the future. In politics a year could be like a decade. Things happen, coalitions changes. The European Parliament could change a lot, especially in the next elections.
Speaking of the Parliament and the next European elections, on Monday Macron’s En Marche and Spanish liberal party Ciudadanos agreed to set up a platform to group all the ‘progressive’ forces. Is it a positive development or could it split the liberal family?
I think it is very welcomed. It is important that voters see that the enthusiasm to use our European democracy to improve our societies is something that happens in various countries. I don’t see it as something that counters to what ALDE group has been doing.
But maybe this new platform could start poaching ALDE members to join them…
I think the first and most important thing is to show voters that it matters that they vote. It is not a question of this or that group of parties or movements. But rather a broad centre [of political parties] working together to change our European democracy, so we do things with a European perspective.
But would this platform interest you or are you a happy ALDE member?
That very much depends on what you want. I don’t vote for a label. I vote for a vision, for a mission, for what you want to do. That is for me the important thing. Voters in general they don’t buy the labelling, they realise they need to find someone that they can trust to make something it makes sense.
So would you be open…?
I think everybody should be, but I will always vote for my own party, for obvious reasons.