Margrethe Vestager: How Can We Ensure Fair Competition Online? When we shop in a store, we're used to having options. But in a digital economy controlled by tech monopolies, choice isn't built in. Margrethe Vestager is on a mission to change that.
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Margrethe Vestager: How Can We Ensure Fair Competition Online?

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Margrethe Vestager: How Can We Ensure Fair Competition Online?

Margrethe Vestager: How Can We Ensure Fair Competition Online?

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MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

OK. At this point, you might be feeling a little overwhelmed. Technology is growing fast. Misinformation is spreading quicker, and our digital economy is controlled by tech giants. If you want to shop, you go to Amazon. Social media - head to Facebook or Instagram, which Facebook owns. Searching the Web - you Google it. What's missing in all of this? A choice in the services we use, something one woman is working very hard to change.

MARGRETHE VESTAGER: My name is Margrethe Vestager. I am the European commissioner for competition.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: And Margrethe says it's tough to ensure the Internet is safe and fair if the playing field is skewed.

VESTAGER: I work with competition law enforcement, making sure that companies don't do cartels.

ZOMORODI: By cartels, she means businesses coming together to form monopolies.

VESTAGER: You cannot buy yourself a nice cartel. You cannot come together as businesses in secrecy squeezing out your competitors.

ZOMORODI: You probably don't know many EU commissioners, but you might know Margrethe as the woman who's been fining tech companies for not following European law.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Breaking news this morning. It is official...

VESTAGER: Today, the commission has decided to fine Google.

ZOMORODI: In 2018, Margrethe slapped Google with a record fine of $5 billion.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: ...Five billion dollars.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: ...Five billion dollars over its Android operating system.

VESTAGER: ...For breaching EU antitrust rules.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: It's the largest antitrust penalty ever leveled at a single company.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The tech giant has 90 days to make changes, or face penalty payments.

VESTAGER: ...Penalty payments.

ZOMORODI: She's launched investigations into Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Margrethe Vestager, the EU's competition commissioner and resident dragon slayer.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: She hates the United States perhaps worse than any person I've ever met.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Wow.

TRUMP: What she does to our country - she's suing all our companies. You know...

VESTAGER: The purpose is to ensure competition and innovation for the benefits of European consumers.

ZOMORODI: And that, she says, is the key to building an Internet we can trust.

VESTAGER: Part of building trust is that you know there is a consequence if someone betrays your trust and do something illegal, something that they shouldn't do. Because if it's without consequence to betray people's trust, well, then trust disappears. And I think that is what is eroding societies and democracies. We need trust to make our society work.

ZOMORODI: In just a moment, Margrethe Vestager explains how she's working to build that trust. On the show today - writing new rules for our online lives. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And on the show today - ideas about building trust in the internet.

We just heard from EU competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager, who says the best way to build that trust is to make competition fair. And to do that, Margrethe is looking to the past to the very first time that Europe built a fair marketplace across its borders.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

VESTAGER: Let's go back to 1957 - Europe was destroyed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: Here's Margrethe on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

VESTAGER: A world war had emerged from Europe. The human suffering was unbelievable and unprecedented.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: The sound of ruin is silence. The smell of ruin is sick with the scent of dead and dust.

VESTAGER: In order to avoid Europe being sort of the cradle (ph) of a third world war, we have to do something radical. We have to work together in a different way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Will there be peace or war?

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

VESTAGER: Representatives from six European countries had come to Rome to sign the treaty that were to create the European Union. And one of the many building blocks was a common European market.

Part of the inspiration came from the U.S. because in the U.S., that was already sort of part of the societal contract for decades by the Sherman Act. So they took the inspiration from antitrust to say, well, you have to be innovative. You have to offer affordable prices, good service, high quality, come up with the latest.

So we put a frame around this market to control bad behavior, and within that framework, we say now go compete. Now let the market powers work so that the customers and consumers, they get the best of what a market can offer.

ZOMORODI: So how unlikely was it that people would actually come together to agree on this standard set of rules?

VESTAGER: Well, I think back then, it was almost a miracle because we have a history of fighting our neighbors.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VESTAGER: Coming together and agreeing, not only on values, but also how you put values into real life, that was a manmade miracle. And here, literally men because it was men who was writing these rules.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

VESTAGER: But the thing is that it worked. Europe has been at peace ever since.

ZOMORODI: But the key difference now is that we have a global economy that's driven by big tech companies, right? They have the highest valuations of any corporations. They operate around the world and on the Internet, and governments haven't really placed boundaries on them. So where are we now when we look back at 1957 in terms of applying those ideas?

VESTAGER: Well, we still have some way to go, to say it mildly, but the fundamentals are the same. The reason why it was necessary to frame the market in this respect was human nature. And human nature doesn't change with digital technology because it's about greed and fear and power. Of course, we are profoundly challenged to fully grasp a fully digital economy because the dynamics are different from how it was in the old days, 10 years ago - also because we're in the midst sort of of breaking the fiction of the Web as a place of freedom.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VESTAGER: The Web is a very commercial place. It's a place where you also find some of the things that we have long, long time agreed on in the real world that we will not accept, like, you know, handing out bomb recipes, child abuse, incitement to terrorism. So there are temptations, there are conflicts, there are evil things that we'll have to deal with. And I think we are better off and much wiser if we look at the digital part of our society, of our market with the same eyes as we would look at the rest of the world because otherwise, I don't think that we can maintain democracy.

ZOMORODI: So with that in mind, as commissioner, what sort of scenarios prompt you to do an investigation? Like, in my head, I'm thinking maybe small businesses who are selling their stuff on Amazon but struggling to compete with Amazon itself.

VESTAGER: Exactly. And we do have an Amazon investigation in issues exactly as the one you just described. Because on the one hand side, it is great that small vendors can find a marketplace where they can be helped with shipping and payments and, you know, the things that makes it easy to do e-commerce. On the other hand side, it's not that good if the one who holds the marketplace also takes all the data that comes from your sale. And they have this information from all the vendors, then they themselves becomes an incredible competitor to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VESTAGER: Because imagine sort of an old-school marketplace where you have people coming in with their different products. You would never accept if the municipality who owned the marketplace had a giant shop where they would sell things that were similar to the products that the vendors who had paid for their stalls in the marketplace that they would sell. And there's a lot of parallels in sort of the real world where we have discussed in depth how we would like things to be and agreed upon it and enforced it over decades. And I think only because we have had this illusion of the Internets and the digital world being special and free and innovative, we have kind of let go of some of the things that were fundamental to us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: So, clearly, small businesses benefit from your work, but what about the big guys? Some of them are kind of trying to beat you to the punch. Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, for example, has said he wants to be regulated. Please, put framework around our company so we know when we're complying and not complying, he's basically said. Do you think that's just lip service?

VESTAGER: Of course, I'm not in Mark Zuckerberg's head, but I think he's right that regulation is needed. But if you want regulation, you would also start with yourself. You would consider your business to say, well, I know it takes time for a regulator to get the legislation right, so I will start with myself to make sure that my fundamental values and the values reflected in the society where I do my business, that they are also reflected in the way I do business.

ZOMORODI: Do you think that people are starting to understand that what happens online in the digital space really does affect what happens in the real world, that the two aren't that separate?

VESTAGER: I think so. I think slowly but surely.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VESTAGER: For me, the important thing is that we live in a world with consequences, that be a digital world or a physical world or when the two things they kind of melt together as they do now. Just as there's no such thing as a free lunch, I'd say there's no such thing as a paradise without a snake.

ZOMORODI: That's EU Commissioner Margrethe Vestager. You can find her full talk at ted.com.

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