- EU Commissioner Margrethe Vestager is known for being tough on American tech companies.
- But she's not on board with calls in the US to break them up: "We don't have a problem that big where breaking up could be the solution," she argued.
- She also worries that by breaking them up, "you just have many more problems."
- Yet she also says that fines aren't doing the trick, and the ambitions of the tech giants have only grown — calling out Facebook's Libra cryptocurrency project as one of particular concern.
- The solution, she believes, could be more widespread pressure from citizens and US regulators.
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EU Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, known for the big fines she has lobbied against big US tech companies, said on Thursday that it's time for a change in tactics when it comes to dealing with Silicon Valley.
"If I've seen change, it is, basically to have even bigger ambitions," she said at Web Summit in Lisbon, one of Europe's biggest tech conferences. She offered by way of example Google's continual rollout of new features and services, Facebook's push to establish the Libra cryptocurrency, and Apple's move into TV streaming.
Asked about Libra specifically, she was particularly skeptical:"First and foremost we're trying to figure out what it is," she said — adding that Libra is being analyzed by the whole European Commission, not just her department.
"We have questions not only about the tying of the Facebook product and the payment product and the dominance of Facebook, but colleagues of mine, they are asking questions about money laundering, terrorist financing, finances stability, all the things that may come when you create a currency that is not under the control of authority," she said.
She believes that policing big tech with the weapons available to regulators like herself — namely, fines and monitoring — "can only do part of the job."
But she also said she wasn't on board with calls to break those tech giants up. Prominent Democrats, especially presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, have called for the breakup of Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google on antitrust grounds.
"From a competition point of view, you would have to do something that breaking up the company was the only solution to the illegal behavior, to the damage," she said. "And we don't have that kind of case right now."
She wouldn't rule out that such action might be appropriate in the future, but she's not in favor of it right now: "We don't have a problem that big where breaking up could be the solution."
She also drew an analogue to the Greek mythological creature known as the Hydra. "When you chopped off one head, 1,2, or 7 came up. So there is a risk that you don't solve the problem, you just have many more problems."
Rather, she thinks that tech companies who grow to certain sizes and have become influential in as many areas as the big tech companies have should face more specific conditions. In her words: "When you get that big, you get a special responsibility, because you are the de factor the ruler in the sector that you own."
She says that if big tech's predatory behavior — whether it is how they gather data on people or how they treat upstart competitors — is to be reined in, the movement has to come from widespread pressure from average citizens pushing for regulatory change.
"We need to find the right level of democracy framing of tech and saying, 'this is how you should serve us,'" she described.
She's also hopeful that the US will join in, and says she's seeing positive signs in that direction, as US authorities are now looking harder at big tech than ever before.
"Maybe there's an enforcer role for the US here as well. And that is very, very welcome," Vestager said.