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Margrethe Vestager, Silicon Valley’s Worst Enemy, Returns With Even More Power

Aoife White and Natalia Drozdiak

(Bloomberg) -- The regulator who’s made a name for herself by cracking down on tech giants is about to get even more power.

Margrethe Vestager was picked Tuesday by EU Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen to be her executive vice president in charge of the bloc’s digital affairs –- a post that will hand the Dane oversight of issues relating to artificial intelligence, big data, innovation and cybersecurity.

Even more concerning for those hoping to avoid billion-dollar fines, Vestager, 51, will also keep her job as one of the most feared antitrust regulators. She squeezed huge penalties out of Apple Inc. and Google, rousing wrathful tweets from U.S. President Donald Trump. Washington’s ire only raised her own profile, making her a close-run candidate to head the EU commission and landing her with a potentially powerful role as vice president in charge of digital policy.

Silicon Valley firms probably have the sense of “better the devil you know” when they see Vestager return for another five years, said Pablo Ibanez Colomo, a law professor at the London School of Economics. “They know pretty much where she comes from and know her style” of strict enforcement.

While the Dane dealt coolly with criticism, claiming she didn’t deliberately target tech companies for antitrust and tax cases, she often shied away from attempts to settle investigations without fines. Being resolute won her admiration but also sparked irritation in Paris and Berlin when she blocked the Siemens AG and Alstom SA rail deal they favored. She’s spent the last few months trying to sell herself as a politician prepared to act on fears that Europe is being left behind by China and the U.S., especially on technology.

One of her first acts after taking office in 2014 was to start up a stalled Google investigation that her predecessor had come under fire for trying to settle. The Alphabet Inc. unit had to hand over 8.2 billion euros ($9.1 billion) in fines for three probes, make changes that saw it start charging for its Android phone software in Europe and alter shopping ads. It still faces the risk of more fines from fresh investigations and complaints it isn’t complying with existing antitrust orders.

Vestager’s new post lets her move beyond the limits of antitrust enforcement, often criticized for ordering too few changes too late to help less powerful rivals. She’s paid close attention to how internet platforms host smaller companies they also compete with, an issue for Amazon.com Inc. in a probe the EU opened in July and also the subject of complaints targeting Apple Inc. and Google.

Her work is “not an attack on businesses, this is an attempt for democracy to shape our society,” she told reporters on Tuesday. She described her new role as helping to plug gaps identified by antitrust investigations, pointing to recent rules that allow small companies to get answers from internet platforms if they think they are being treated unfairly. The measures appear to target issues raised by the EU’s Google probes.

“That is a kind of regulation that you might see more of,” she said. “We had the insight from the specific cases but that insight will also lead you to consider more regulation.”

Vestager will take over as digital chief at a time when the European Commission is coordinating the bloc’s 5G security, grappling with what role Huawei Technologies Co. should play in the build-out of the infrastructure, as the U.S. urges Europe to block the Chinese telecom giant in spite of the risks posed by angering an important trade partner.

France’s Sylvie Goulard, picked as internal market commissioner, will work more directly on defining standards for 5G mobile and next-generation networks, cybersecurity rules and response strategies, along with leading industrial and defense policy.

Von der Leyen told Vestager to coordinate work on an EU approach on the ethical implications of AI within the first 100 days of the mandate and look at ways to share non-personal big data. She must also coordinate work to find international agreement on a tax on digital companies by the end of 2020 or to propose a fair European levy. And to deal with fears that China unfairly undercuts European firms, she has been told to tackle the distortion of foreign state ownership and subsidies.

Vestager and other commission nominees face hearings in early October at the European Parliament before lawmakers vote on their posts.

“She will be very positively seen and she’s intelligent and smart enough” to win over lawmakers, said Andreas Schwab, a German member of the parliament.

(Adds comments from law professor and Vestager starting in fourth paragraph.)

--With assistance from Lyubov Pronina.

To contact the reporters on this story: Aoife White in Brussels at awhite62@bloomberg.net;Natalia Drozdiak in Brussels at ndrozdiak1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Giles Turner at gturner35@bloomberg.net, Peter Chapman

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