Near the end of her term, the world’s toughest tech regulator is moving “as fast as possible”

Still laying down the law.
Still laying down the law.
Image: Jussi Hellsten/Slush 2018
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“I have this feeling that we are onto something and we better move as fast as possible.”

This is not the sort of thing that tech giants want to hear from Margrethe Vestager. Over the past few years, the EU’s competition commissioner has levied billions of euros in fines against Google, Facebook, Apple, and other Silicon Valley stalwarts for breaking the bloc’s antitrust rules. Amazon is now in her sights.

On top of the EU’s tough new rules on data privacy and mooted plans for special taxes on online advertising revenue, Vestager’s aggressive actions in the name of “fairness” have made Europe particularly hostile territory for big tech firms.

Her term as commissioner ends in less than a year and the prospects of her getting another five-year appointment aren’t great. (Back home in Denmark, her political party is now in the opposition, making it unlikely that the ruling coalition would support her candidacy for a spot in the next commission.) Thus, she has been fielding questions about her legacy and taking actions with an eye toward steering EU antitrust policy for tech firms in the years to come. “It’s a new world for regulators, working to make sure they offer just as much protection online as offline,” she said in a keynote address at the Slush tech conference in Helsinki today (Dec. 4).

She also hit her usual talking points about fairness, trust, and the abuses of big tech platforms in the speech. “They’re not startups any more, fighting for a toehold among big, powerful companies. Now, they themselves are the big beasts,” she said. “And if they deny today’s startups a chance to do what they did, and carve out a market by doing things differently, then we all lose out on the benefits of innovation can offer.”

At a press conference after her speech, she suggested that she feels a sense of urgency in her work, which hints at an acceleration in her already action-packed stint. Her department is looking into Google’s AdSense unit, Amazon’s Marketplace, and Facebook’s tax arrangements, among other official and rumored investigations. “The platform economy is the economy,” she noted, making clear that the online giants will remain a key focus of her attention.

This being Finland, Vestager also found time to hit the sauna with Finnish prime minister Juha Sipilä on the sidelines of the conference. But if disgruntled tech execs think one of the world’s toughest regulators is taking it easy at the tail end of her term, they might get burned.