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4th Feb 2023

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Vestager: 'Technology must not steal our time'

  • Denmark's former economy and home affairs minister, and considered one of the most powerful women in Europe, Vestager has long defended a technological transformation that works for people (Photo: Radikale Venstre)
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Margrethe Vestager, widely-regarded as one of Europe's most powerful women, may spend most of her professional life trying to make the continent "fit for the digital age" (her official job title as EU commissioner) — yet she is adamant that technology must not control our entire lives.

"My main worry is that all of a sudden we forget just to look each other in the eye, and have a normal dinner without the phone on the table, to talk, or take a walk in the forest without registering every step," she says in an interview for EUobserver magazine.

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  • Vestager: 'Technology must not steal our time' (Photo: Twitter)

Technological transformation must work for people, warns the Danish former economy and home affairs minister. "We have chosen to do our best to make sure that technology actually serves the societies that we live in, and who we are as citizens, consumers, and voters," she stresses.

The EU commissioner has her work cut out. One of her many tasks is to make sure the EU stays a step ahead in the fierce geopolitical competition for global tech leadership.

The European approach of 'rules and regulations', in order to promote a competitive model but one which is also values-based, is being challenged by China's no-copyright 'free-for-all' method, and the US 'move-fast-and-break-it' model.

Whether there is room for three such markedly-different approaches is still an open question, she acknowledges.

Certainly, the EU is making its own mark. The Digital Service Act (DSA) and the Digital Market Act (DMA) — two landmark pieces of digital legislation agreed upon in record time under the French EU Council presidency in the first half of 2022 — are the first salvos in Europe's effort to bring an end to the so-called 'Wild West' elements of Big Tech.

These rules are deemed a new era in tech regulation, aiming to set worldwide standards beyond Europe's borders — but it still remains to be seen whether either national authorities or the EU bodies will have enough teeth to ensure their enforcement.

The DSA is expected to give control back to users, prohibit illegal content online, and make online platforms more transparent.

The DMA will complement the bloc's competition policy, prohibiting anti-competitive behaviour by internet giants which act as 'gatekeepers'.

Given their significant and entrenched market power, turnover and user numbers, US tech firms, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft, all fall under this category.

"With the Digital Market Act, the rules of the game are changing", says Vestager. "Those who have market power, also have obligations and prohibitions that the others do not have — and that of course is rebalancing the market power", she says, referring to the ways in which new rules will prohibit such gatekeepers from engaging in unfair business practices.

Google, for example, was fined €2.4bn in 2017 for promoting its service called "Google Shopping" over similar such services from competitors. But new rules will prohibit such behaviour a priori.

The commission, Vestager says, is already working with companies on what to do — and how to do it. Tech platforms presumed to be gatekeepers will have to share data about their average user numbers in the EU. These reports will help the commission designate very large companies in a list, which will be public and regularly updated.

Data boom

One may think that Europe lost the first battle, for technological leadership, to the US and China, and their Big Tech behemoths such as Facebook, Amazon or Huawei. But has the EU lost the war?

The commissioner says a new phase of digitisation is taking off — bringing a unique opportunity for Europe to grasp the boom in industrial data. But unlocking the potential of such industrial data remains a difficult test for the EU, since 80 percent of its data remains unused.

"One of the things that we learned from the fact that Europe never established [any] sort of Big Tech business-to-consumer [B2C], is that we didn't provide a single market [and] a sufficiently supportive capital market," Vestager says.

The European single market, nevertheless, has evolved considerably and access to capital has improved. Europe is ready to lead in the data economy and business-to-business (B2B) data-sharing thanks to the EU's "entrepreneurial and industrial culture", she says, adding: "We have changed the European marketplace [with] very good timing, with this change from business to consumer being [the] name of the game, to business-to-business being the real 'Big Thing'."

Landmark proposals from the EU's strategy to boost data-sharing across sectors and member states — the Data Governance Act and the Data Act — will be key, as information generated by connected products, the so-called Internet of Things (IoT) is expected to grow exponentially within the next few years.

Under the 2020 European data strategy, the commission announced nine data spaces across priority sectors — including health, agriculture, energy, mobility, finance, and public administration.

Data availability and data interoperability are also crucial for the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI). For example, vast amounts of health data could help develop better health services, simultaneously reducing parts of doctors' busy workloads.

The EU wants to mobilise funding to invest €20bn per year in AI during the next decade, to reduce the investment gap with the US and China.

But the European Investment Bank has identified an annual shortfall of up to €10bn in AI and blockchain investments in the EU. In total, the estimated annual public investment of the EU in AI is €1bn — compared to €5.1bn by the US and €6.8bn by China.

For many people, AI may be about a future of self-driving cars and other such sci-fi technologies — but in fact the age of AI is already here.

The AI Act, a key piece of legislation to regulate AI applications dependent on the risks they pose to citizens' rights or safety, is currently being discussed by EU member states and MEPs.

Once approved, it will become the first legislation of its kind worldwide. Like the EU's data protection rules (GDPR) in 2018, the AI Act also aspires to become a global standard.

Risky for democracy

Disruptive technologies, meanwhile, have proven to be hard to regulate. The use of surveillance technologies such as the smartphone spyware, Pegasus, against anti-regime activists, journalists, and political leaders in several countries illustrates the risks that new technologies can pose to democracy and civil rights.

In 2021, an investigation by 17 media outlets (coordinated by Amnesty International and Forbidden Stories) revealed how the spyware tool of Israeli company NSO Group had been used against human-rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, and politicians.

"When the Pegasus scandal erupted, the commission found that this was absolutely non-acceptable because everyone has a right to privacy and journalists, in particular, have a right to protect their sources," Vestager insists.

But this will probably not be the last spying scandal, she concedes. "Unfortunately, in the world we live in, if there is a buyer for something very often there's also a supply… What is important is that people can protect themselves and that those who produce such technology know what obligations they have."

When asked about the most significant dangers that technology may bring in the future, Vestager warned against allowing technology to dominate our lives. Globally, it is estimated that European citizens spend nearly seven hours per day using the internet across all devices — with an average of 2.5 hours on social media alone. "If we allow technology to steal our time, we are not in control anymore," Vestager warned.

The EU competition chief's battle against global tech giants has made her admired — but also hated by many, mainly in the US.

But she is not too worried and differentiates between two types of criticism: the one where someone interested thinks that there is a better solution and the one that tries to silence certain ideas. Many women are exposed to the latter, she points out.

Europe is backsliding in gender equality and women in power and politics because "a lot of efforts are made to scare people off," she says, adding: "It's not acceptable to bully other people, no matter the age, no matter the gender. And, here, I think we're too timid."

This article first appeared in EUobserver's magazine, Digital EU: the Good, the Bad — and the Ugly, which you can now read in full online.
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