Margrethe Vestager: “My job is not to be at war with specific companies.”
For the past 8 years, Margrethe Vestager has taken the fight to the world’s biggest tech companies in her role as EU commissioner for competition. Despite the incredibly deep pockets of tech lobbyists, she has had some very high-profile “wins.” In the OMR Podcast, she discusses what will happen next.
Since being appointed EU Commissioner for Competition in 2014, Margrethe Vestager has taken a very tough stance on regulating big tech. In fact, her efforts and determination have led Spotify CEO Daniel Ek to say her tactics have “real teeth.” And despite the fact that she just scored a massive win in an antitrust suit versus Google earlier this week—to the tune of EUR 4b—she does not see herself at war with big tech, per sé. “My job is not to be at war with individual companies. My job is to stop illegal behavior.”
While that may be, Vestager has aggressively pursued legislation aimed at curbing the power of tech corporations to ensure a more level playing field on the market. The list of cases she has brought against Google, Apple and others since coming into office is lengthy to say the least. From tackling tax evasion by Apple and addressing Google abusing its power on the market to influence price comparisons to Amazon’s misuse of retailer data to improve their own position, Vestager has cast a wide regulatory net.
Landmark digital legislation for Europe
Her efforts have, of course, been very high profile—even though Vestager and the EU Commission have suffered their fair share of legal defeats as well. It’s not easy taking on wrongdoers with unfathomably deep pockets. She does, however, have a landmark victory in the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act, recent legislative packages launched by the EU providing the basis for a kind of fundamental digital law for Europe (We broke down the legislation and its potential impact on big tech and smaller digital players). However, in the OMR Podcast, Vestager said she is not ready to call it a success just yet. “It is not enough to pass a regulation, you also have to implement it so that the effects can be seen every day.”
The two legislative packages were preceded by a massive battle among lobbyists. Tech companies recently put more money into lobbying in Brussels than the pharmaceutical, energy and tobacco industries. Compared to the resources of corporations, Vestager’s office is quite small, with a staff of fewer than 25 people and a ministry whose employees total 900. She is very aware of the uphill battle she’s facing. “We can never outnumber the lawyers and lobbyists, but the passion in my team ensures that we can still achieve very useful things.”
A deaf ear—and a closed door—for lobbyists
The commissioner has also imposed a few rules on herself for dealing with corporations and lobbyists. Meeting with CEOs is fine, but never with lobbyists. “I can’t meet with someone who is only paid to push messages on me.” That makes it all the more important, she says, to nevertheless be open to criticism. If the criticism is constructive or justified she says then it is always welcome, “if what we have pursued or passed is not good enough.”
Vestager does not see herself stepping away from the post anytime soon—despite her being repeatedly tapped as a candidate for Commission President. In fact, she seems to be working overtime on dealing with the next wave of challenges, including the metaverse. Facebook, now Meta, has ostensibly identified this as a growth area. In Vestager’s eyes, there is no fundamental problem with Facebook’s metaverse plans. She is quick to point out, however, that just because they are now called Meta they do not have an inherent monopoly on the Metaverse. “We have to make sure that our European rules apply there as well,” says Vestager.
Check out the full episode of the OMR podcast to hear Vestager’s thoughts on Tiktok, what she thinks about the controversy surrounding Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin and where the fight versus Big Tech is headed.