Margrethe Vestager

Newly appointed European Commission’s executive vice president for digital, Margrethe Vestager. | Diarmuid Greene/Getty Images

cybersecurity

Margrethe Vestager's vast new powers

Silicon Valley’s tormentor-in-chief is back — stronger than ever.

Danish politician Margrethe Vestager on Tuesday was appointed the European Commission’s executive vice president for digital, as well as the region’s ongoing competition chief.

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After five years of high-profile investigations and fines against Google, Facebook and Apple, her promotion acknowledges that Vestager has become one of Europe’s best-known and most powerful politicians, drawing praise as well as criticism including from Donald Trump, who has accused her of hating the U.S.

The role is certain to put her back on a collision course with Silicon Valley’s most powerful tech companies, whose executives are already fretting about the prospect of dealing with a competition enforcer who also has the power to direct Europe’s broader policy agenda on the digital front.

Having demanded billions of euros in fines from Big Tech, Vestager will now be in charge of revamping how the EU regulates the digital world, with the dual objective of shoring up the bloc’s tech credentials while grappling with digital giants that are now branching into new industries, from financial services to the automotive sector.

Along with her existing work as competition enforcer, the Dane will also be in charge of supervising overarching cybersecurity, industrial and big data policies, as well as coordinating Europe’s position on the taxation of digital companies, according to the European Commission.

“We have to improve on cybersecurity. We have to work hard on technological sovereignty,” Ursula von der Leyen, the Commission president-elect, told reporters on Tuesday. “Margrethe Vestager will coordinate the whole agenda and be the commissioner for competition. She will work together with the internal market, innovation and youth, transport, health and justice.”

Vestager’s appointment sends a signal that the EU now wants to coordinate, or even merge, regulatory powers to bring previously distinct areas like competition and data protection under a single supervisor.

As Facebook moves into financial services with Libra, its digital currency, and Google branches out from search into hardware, the effort comes as part of worldwide push by agencies in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere to figure out how to deal with tech companies that do not neatly fit into traditional categories of regulatory oversight established by policymakers.

The task of figuring out how to do that in the EU now falls to Vestager.

But while she accumulates new powers, her expanded role also is an acknowledgment that the current system has also failed.

A small number digital giants remain the de facto digital gatekeepers for how Europeans and people around the world use online services. And despite years of investigations — many of them led by Vestager’s own team — Google continues to dominate online search, Facebook remains the world’s largest social network and Amazon continues to expand its online empire. Few, if any, have any real global competitors.

Vestager will now have to limit such tech dominance while also pushing Europe to be at the forefront of digital regulation at a time when the U.S. and several countries in Asia are starting to review their approach to regulation with an eye to joining up industrial policy, competition and consumer protection.

“We have to update our regulation,” said José van Dijck, a professor at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. “We have compartmentalized our society within different legal frameworks. But that’s not how these companies operate.”

Enter Vestager.

Under her new roles as both Commission executive vice president for digital and competition chief, she will have unprecedented power to direct how Europe tackles the dominance of Big Tech, promotes local players and sets rules for artificial intelligence and the use of big data.

Vestager will be tasked with making the region “fit for the digital age,” a wide-ranging responsibility that mirrors the current Commission’s priority to bolster Europe’s technological prowess — an area where the bloc falls behind China and the U.S. and where rivalries among member states have often made it difficult for Europe to speak with one voice.

“The stakes today are high,” Vestager told an audience in Norway earlier this month. “Like a footballer who gets to play in the World Cup for the first time, we find that the rules of the game are no different — but suddenly, the stakes are much higher.”

The Commission’s new tactics don’t come without risks.

Vestager has been given new powers to tap into the EU’s legions of bureaucrats in Brussels to both inform and set legislation. This access to her own staff and resources, including the bloc’s powerful and well-resourced competition authority, means that Vestager will have more power to direct policy than vice presidents in the previous Commission.

But the Danish politician is also walking into a political minefield.

As she takes up new roles overseeing digital and industrial policy, she faces questions about possible conflicts of interest because she will both be enforcing and setting the EU’s standards — a concern that she acknowledged. “We cannot take any risks on the casework because it will have to stand up in court,” Vestager said in response to questions about her independence.

In her new role, she will have to avoid overlapping with other commissioners, particularly Sylvie Goulard, the former deputy governor of France’s central bank who was appointed as Europe’s new internal markets commissioner with responsibility to promote digital industries.

With a remit to oversee regulation of artificial intelligence and cybersecurity, Goulard will be in effect the region’s digital commissioner with powers over new technologies like blockchain, data-hungry algorithms and the latest mobile networks, known as 5G. It remains to be seen exactly how the French official and Vestager will divide their respective responsibilities.

Vestager also is an outspoken critic of how tech companies use people’s personal data — an area that she has made a priority for Europe’s competition authority after opening several investigations in recent months into whether such harvesting of data by Silicon Valley represents an antitrust concern.

But this focus on data protection could bring her into conflict with national privacy watchdogs, many of which have their own ongoing investigations into Big Tech.

It may also put Vestager at loggerheads with Didier Reynders, a former Belgian politician, who was given oversight of Europe’s tough privacy standards, known as the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, within the incoming Commission.

“I have no intention of even trying to do the work on myself, on the contrary,” Vestager told reporters on Tuesday. “The task is to make a sufficiently strong team among commissioners to make sure we can make things happen.”

How the Danish politician — one who has used selfies, popular culture references and high-profile interviews to boost her global profile — balances these competing, and often conflicting, interests will be key to whether she succeeds as the Commission’s new vice president for digital.

Vestager was able to sidestep such challenges during her tenure as Europe’s competition chief.

Now the question is: can she do it again?

This report first appeared on politico.eu on Sept. 10, 2019.

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