EU Competition Chief Margrethe Vestager At SXSW – “We Care About Safety In Physical Products, We Have Not Cared Enough” About Digital Risks

The Europe’s Margrethe Vestager, one of the world’s most powerful and proactive regulators, has made Europe a first mover in checking big tech for the public good and in the interest of competition.

The head of the EU’s Competition Commission has developed key digital privacy laws, rules on hate speech and most recently a framework for AI (one area where she’s heartened by a global push to face its existential risk). Last week, her Committee fined Apple an unexpectedly high $2 billion for stifling competition for streaming music on its app store.

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“We’ve had Apple cases, Facebook cases, Amazon cases. It all started before me with the Microsoft cases, and we have open Microsoft cases now,” she said Sunday during a Q&A at SXSW where she is receiving an award. “What is fundamental in an economy like ours is, can you make it to the marketplace?”

“What gets me out of bed in the morning is the fight for equal opportunities. And having seen how big tech has used success to close the marketplace, that has been one of the driving force for what we have done for the last ten years. Because if everyone is to have an equal opportunity of making it, of attracting investors, well, then you need to know that you can get to market. And if the market is closed, if it’s not your hard work, your ability to attract investors that makes you successful or not, then I think we have something to do,” she said.

Enforcement is key. Under law, the Commission has an decent “enforcement toolbox “so you can get quite hefty fines. And, for repeat circumstances, you can double fines. If repeated and repeated, you can get to a situation where you can actually order the company to be split up. Based on my experience, this is the kind of tools that you need to have. You cannot rely on voluntary goodwill, you need to have more.”

“Our basic thinking is quite simple. Technology is here to serve people. And if you trust technology, it’s much more likely that you will actually embrace it and make the most of it,” she said.

She noted Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower, “who claimed that Facebook cared more about profits than mental health issues of Instagram. Without having a position on that, that’s exactly what they’ll have to assess, Is this safe to use? We care a lot about safety in physical products. Are there chemicals in them that will affect us in a carcinogenic way? We have so far not cared enough about risks with digital services.”

On hate speech, she said: “we oblige platforms to have a way of figuring out whether they’re carrying something illegal. So there is an obligation to have a system in place to take it down. If you have your post taken down, you can complain about it on a freedom of speech ground, and of course you can go to the courts. It’s merely to protect, while at the same time, also enable discretion.”

There are special requirements around youngsters and kids “to make sure that the below 13 are not seeing things that they should not see. And I think that is a increasing global issue.”

She’s surprised at the resistance of U.S. regulators and politicians to move on kids. “I find it really strange, because this is something that we all agree on, that kids should be protected … I would find it strange if, for example, Facebook is doing the risk assessments, they’re addressing the risks, while providing the services in Europe. If they then say, oh, but we only do this in Europe. We only want to protect children in Europe, because that is the law, that you will not do the same thing in basically the rest of the world?”

The lack of a a national digital privacy law (like California did) also surprises given a focus on the rights of the individual. In Europe, there’s “The Right To Be Forgotten” digitally — meaning you can demand that all old posts and social media records be gone.

“I’m quite happy that that [certain] moments of my youth are not online. And I think we should extend the same courtesy to all the youngsters these days, who may not want their future employer to see what they did on a picture taken 10 years ago, It’s the right to say, well, there are different phases of my life, and in my professional capacity, I don’t think that my future employer should be able to see everything that I did when I was young, because I’ve moved on.”

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