Vestager takes aim at ‘biopower’ of tech giants 

Executive Vice President-designate, Europe fit for the Digital Age, Margrethe Vestager. [EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ]

Global tech giants have been sowing the seeds of an economy predicated on ‘biopower’, in an attempt to ‘set their own standards and conditions’ amid the EU’s attempts to rein in their dominance, the bloc’s Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager has told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.

The Dane, who will also be responsible for ‘making Europe fit for the digital age’ as part of her upcoming mandate as an Executive Vice-President, also revealed that the European Commission is in talks with the French competition authorities in order to examine whether a further investigation into Google’s stance on the EU’s copyright directive is necessary.

The news comes following French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent request for competition authorities to probe Google’s recent changes of service that will result in the company avoiding the legal obligation to remunerate press publishers for the displaying of links to online articles in search results.

“We’re in contact with the French competition authorities, in order to see what would they do, to see if they would want to handle the question or if we should have a look,” Vestager said, adding that the objective of modernising the EU’s copyright rules was to ensure than online content creators “should be remunerated.”

Despite the disclosure that the European Commission is in talks with French competition authorities on this issue, Vestager also said that “the most important thing here is to make sure that we not dealing with things that should be dealt with with copyright authorities,” adding however that when dominant tech firms start to establish their own standards, there are more important questions that need to be addressed.

“Obviously there can be an issue of biopower when you have a relationship where there is indeed a giant that sets their own terms and conditions, that would not be what you thought of neither in the spirit nor in the letter of the new copyright legislation,” she said.

‘Biopower’ is a term first coined by French Philosopher Michel Foucault in the 1970s, which in the context of Vestager’s comments refers to the ways in which a large organisation controls populations as a means to fulfil wider economic objectives.

Google declined to respond to Vestager’s comments, but referred EURACTIV to a previous statement which reads that the company is “happy to answer any questions the French Competition Authority may have.”

Vestager’s comments on Monday (18 November) came as part of an interview conducted on the sidelines of a EURACTIV event 20 Visions for Europe, celebrating 20 years of EURACTIV’s media network operation across the EU. Speaking at the event, she was keen to put her weight behind the importance of the future sustainability of Europe’s media sector, saying that “we need independent, unbiased and hopefully pro-European media.”

US relations

On the brink of taking up her new post in the Commission, which will involve continuing her management of the Competition portfolio as well as overseeing a range of competencies within the digital sphere as an Executive Vice-President, Vestager is currently attempting to beef up her profile as the guardian of EU values, amid rising global tech dominance. Over the past five years, she has taken out high-profile actions against a number of tech firms, including Google, Facebook and Apple. Her actions against Google have been particularly costly to the firm, with fines totalling to more than $9 billion over recent years.

As part of her upcoming mandate she will face a series of pressing challenges, including the potential regulation of the online ecosystem, how to manage intelligent technologies in parallel with EU standards and principles, and Europe’s role in an ever-precarious geopolitical landscape.

Due to her proactive stance in antitrust measures and competition actions involving some of the highest profile American companies, she has faced the ire of several politicians on the other side of the Atlantic. In June US President Trump claimed that Vestager “hates the US,” following the EU’s various lawsuits against US firms.

However, Vestager has been keen to assuage concerns that she is pursuing any anti-US agenda. “One of the reasons why we have had cases where US companies are involved is not because of the flag,” she told EURACTIV. “It’s because there are complaints and a lot of those complaints, they come from other US companies, because Europe is a great place to do business.”

Digital Services Act

Speaking on the subject of the highly anticipated Digital Services Act, Vestager said that she expects the measures will take a long time to be approved as part of future negotiations between EU institutions, but that questions need to be addressed with regards to the ‘liabilities’ of platforms, as well as compliance with various codes of practice currently in operation.

The Digital Services Act is a new framework due to be put forward by the Commission in 2020, which will update the decades-old eCommerce directive in establishing new rules governing the internet.

EURACTIV understands that talks have been ongoing in the Commission as to whether disinformation may be included in the framework of the Digital Services Act. Earlier this week, Vestager informed EURACTIV that there could be the possibility that fake news faces regulation in the future.

A Commission official recently informed EURACTIV that a future decision in this area will be based on four inputs, including a mid-December report from the European Regulators Group for Audiovisual Media Services, analysis from an independent consultancy, overall assessments produced by a third-party organisation chosen by signatories of the code, as well as an EU report on disinformation produced following the European elections earlier this year.

Artificial Intelligence

Meanwhile, on the subject of Artificial Intelligence, the Commission is due to present its approach on AI and Ethics within the first 100 days of the start of the next Commission. One EU source close to the matter informed EURACTIV that the first communication released by the EU executive in this regard is likely to be a ‘roadmap’ of initiatives to come in the future.

Vestager’s approach to AI is cautious, but not overly prohibitive. She told EURACTIV that “great opportunities come with great risks,” but that she has “strong reservations” with the ‘blanket’ application of some technologies in particular, such as facial recognition software.

However, Vestager’s biggest challenge may in fact come from within the walls of the Commission itself. As part of her new set of responsibilities in the Commission, she will oversee work conducted with other members of the College including the head of the Internal Market portfolio Thierry Breton, incoming Innovation and Youth Commissioner Mariya Gabriel and Commissioner-delegate for Justice Didier Reynders. “With all those colourful characters, she will no doubt have her work cut out over the next five years,” one EU source informed EURACTIV. “Her biggest obstacles may in fact be the very people she is working with.”

(Edited by Benjamin Fox)

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