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Google and Facebook Get Some Very Unwelcome News

Lionel Laurent

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Margrethe Vestager, famous for slapping vast fines on the likes of Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google during her tenure as the European Union’s top antitrust official, has been given the chance to do it all over again. She’s been handed the same job in Ursula von der Leyen’s proposed European Commission.

Lest it be seen as some kind of consolation prize for missing out on the top job of president (which went to von der Leyen), Vestager has also been awarded the title of executive vice president in charge of coordinating the bloc’s digital strategy. That’s a huge job that goes beyond market abuse and into standard-setting on data protection, AI ethics and mobile networks.

It’s a wise appointment that will please those who see the fight against the monopolizing powers of Silicon Valley and Seattle as being at the heart of any sensible European technology strategy. Vestager herself says the two issues of who gets to own our data and fair competition must go hand in hand, something that will spook those who were hoping for a more pliant approach from Brussels.

Her hard line has caused plenty of anguish across the Atlantic, infuriating U.S. President Donald Trump in particular. The EU’s probes range across Google’s job search, Facebook’s cryptocurrency project Libra, and how Amazon.com Inc. treats its vendors.

The reappointment is also a strong message to Vestager’s many critics inside the EU, including the French and German politicians whose favored merger of the train businesses of Alstom SA and Siemens AG was blocked by Brussels this year on competition grounds. She has proven admirably able to resist pressure from EU member states to bend her merger rules. She should be able to do so again.

With a bit of luck, Vestager will be able to overcome some of the possible contradictions in her role. Her remit will include both regulating the worst excesses of the U.S.-dominated tech sector while encouraging more tech investment into the EU, much of it from American funds. This might mean, for example, beefing up Europe’s data-protection laws, such as its relatively new GDPR rules, even though intense lobbying from business has made the first implementation a mixed bag in terms of fines imposed. Vestager’s Liberal colleague Sylvie Goulard has become the EU’s internal market commissioner, which may help smooth any wrinkles.

Ironically, for all the talk of Europe doubling down on its anti-Big Tech crusade with Vestager’s reappointment, this might be the point at which the EU and the U.S. finally find common cause on technology policy. After years of inaction, American authorities are falling over themselves to investigate the likes of Facebook and Google, and the U.S. presidential election campaign will probably feel the pressure from Democratic Party candidates.

Given the global nature of these problems — Facebook’s Libra has triggered a worldwide pushback from central banks and politicians — it’s  a good thing that American regulators have a seasoned campaigner to talk to in Brussels.

To contact the author of this story: Lionel Laurent at llaurent2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: James Boxell at jboxell@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.

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