Silicon Valley's worst enemy gains even more power in Brussels

Margrethe Vestager has been accused of deliberately targeting tech firms in antitrust probes.

by
    Vestager said she was 'happy for and humbled by the task ahead' [File: Yves Herman/Reuters]
    Vestager said she was 'happy for and humbled by the task ahead' [File: Yves Herman/Reuters]

    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 broad oversight of issues relating to artificial intelligence, big data, innovation and cybersecurity.

    Even more concerning for those hoping to avoid a billion-dollar fine, Vestager 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.

    "In some fields, Europe has to catch up," von der Leyen told a press conference on Tuesday. "Margrethe Vestager will lead our work on Europe fit for the digital age."

    While the Dane dealt coolly with criticism, claiming she didn't deliberately target tech firms 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 let her move beyond the limits of antitrust enforcement, often criticized for ordering too few changes too late to help less powerful rivals. 

    She's also 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.

    In a tweet following the announcement Tuesday, Vestager said she was "happy for and humbled by the task ahead."

    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 partner. 

    Under von der Leyen's presidency, the commission is set to present legislation for an EU approach on the ethical implications of AI and overhaul rules for platforms around their legal liability. 

    France's Sylvie Goulard, picked as internal market commissioner, will also work on promoting the bloc's digital single market, along with leading industrial and defence policy.

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

    SOURCE: Bloomberg