MARGRETHE VESTAGER: FAIRNESS IN TECH

By Nikola Jachanova

The internet has given rise to some of the most powerful companies in history and some of them have used that power to drive competitors from the market – at the expense of consumers. Europe, with Margrethe Vestager, European Commissioner for Competition, in front has a unique position to create what she calls “fairness in tech”.

 

The digital world has changed utterly in the last decade. Not just because technology has developed. But because the way that it fits into our lives has transformed. In those ten years, digital technology has gone from being just one part of our lives, to affecting all that we do. Ten years ago, about a hundred and forty million smartphones were sold around the world – last year, that figure was one and a half billion. Those devices have become a vital part of our lives – when we shop or watch TV, when we stay in touch with friends or search for a restaurant; even when we set the thermostat or unlock the car.

 

And that’s just the most visible part of this change. Underneath, data is helping us do things better and less wastefully in almost every part of our economy  – running wind turbines or production lines, delivering medical care, even farming. Digital technology is even changing our democracy, creating new ways for us to take part in democratic debates –  but also new ways to persuade us – and manipulate us.

 

No such thing as cyberspace

Digital technology is not something we can separate from the rest of our lives. There is really no such thing as cyberspace today; no such thing as a separate world of technology, that can have its own rules. Today, what happens online doesn’t stay online. It affects all that we do, from the way we do our jobs to the future of our democracy. And the more people see that, the more concerned they get about the risks that digital technology can create.

 

People have seen that businesses haven’t always lived up to promises to make sure their data isn’t hacked or misused. They’ve seen powerful businesses using that power to drive others from the market – at the expense of consumers. They’ve seen how social media can allow untrue stories to circulate like the wind, magnifying hate and setting a community against itself. And we need to fix that. We need to help technology thrive – by giving people confidence that it won’t do them harm.

 

So the time is past when we could have different rules online and offline. Today, when digital technology is part of all we do, we need to make sure people have the same protection in the digital world as anywhere else.

 

This is why, like other regulators around the world, the European Commission has been working on new rules for the digital age. Not to hold back the revolution that’s going on, but to build the trust that it needs to succeed.

 

It’s why we have the new GDPR, to make sure people stay in control of their data. It’s why we’ve proposed rules to make sure that digital businesses pay their fair share of tax; that the millions of small businesses that depend on Internet platforms are treated fairly; that terrorist propaganda is taken down within an hour.

 

New rules to protect consumers in a digital world

This digital world also creates new challenges for my work – enforcing the competition rules. It helps that our rules are based on principles that apply just as well, no matter the technology. That’s made it easier for us to keep up with these changes. In cases like Microsoft’s takeover of LinkedIn, or Apple’s purchase of Shazam, we’ve looked at how data affects competition – whether mergers give one company control of the data you need to compete. And we’ve also made sure that powerful digital businesses don’t misuse their power to hold back innovation.

 

Because in the last decade, it’s not just technology that’s changed. The businesses that have become the Internet’s giants have changed too. They’re not startups any more, fighting for a toehold among big, powerful companies. Now, they themselves are the big beasts. 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 innovation can offer.

 

This is why we had to make sure that Google couldn’t stop rival versions of Android – an open-source system – from competing to offer users a better experience. Or that Amazon didn’t stop other e-book retailers getting together with publishers to offer new types of e-books that you couldn’t get on Amazon. As competition enforcers, we need to look forward. We need to understand how markets are changing, and how competition rules need to respond, to protect Europe’s consumers.

 

Trust is the success of the future

It’s a new world we’re in. It’s a new world for consumers, who find digital technology wherever they look. It’s a new world for regulators, working to make sure they offer just as much protection online as offline. And it’s a new world for startups as well. Of course, innovation and ideas are still important. The right ideas, and the dedication to put them into practice, can still take you all the way to the top. But today, it’s clearer than ever that the right ideas are the ones that put our fundamental values first.

 

It’s clear there’s no such thing as a great business model that doesn’t respect people’s rights. There’s no such thing as a great new service that depends on using people’s data in a way they’d never knowingly agree to. There’s no such thing as a great idea that will make lots of money by avoiding tax, or ignoring workers’ rights. The key to success in that future isn’t just technical brilliance. It’s trust.

 

And for startups, that creates an opportunity. An opportunity to leap ahead of big companies that are struggling to work out how to win back that trust. An opportunity, for instance, to stand out by giving users really clear, truthful information on how their data will be used. An opportunity to build the next generation of businesses, where taking our rights and values seriously is built into the culture. That’s the real challenge that innovation faces today. And I know it’s a challenge that will be met by many of you.

 

This speech was first delivered at Slush, Dec 4 2018 in Helsinki and we have kindly been allowed to use it.