Love her or loathe her, Margrethe Vestager of Denmark has become one of Europe’s most prominent political figures over the past few years. As the European Union’s competition commissioner, she has gone after American digital and entertainment giants for alleged antitrust violations with a zeal that her fans wish U.S. regulators would emulate but that her critics say borders on vindictive.
In 2017, she fined Google a record €2.4 billion ($2.7 billion) following an investigation into its shopping search service – a record she topped a year later, in July, with a $5 billion levy on the company for forcing Android smartphone manufacturers to pre-install Google apps. She has ordered Apple and Amazon to pay back taxes of $15.4 billion and $294 million, respectively, causing some in Silicon Valley to choke on their lattes from Starbucks (which she ordered to pay up to $34 million).
Vestager has accused 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., Disney, NBCUniversal and Sony of inking unfair deals with Sky UK that bar the pay-TV service from broadcasting the studios’ movies to viewers outside Britain who ask to sign up to the service (requests known as “passive sales”). At the same time, she has also waved through other transactions involving American businesses, including Comcast’s expected takeover of Sky and Apple’s recent acquisition of Shazam. A ruling on Disney’s purchase of Fox assets is due by Oct. 19.
Personable but tough-minded, a woman who some say is the inspiration for Birgitte Nyborg, the central character in Danish political drama “Borgen,” Vestager recently spoke with Variety in her office in Brussels.
You’ve been accused of being anti-American. Is it coincidence that most of your highest-profile targets have been U.S. companies?
We are responsible for the European market. If you’re in the European market and we get the suspicion that there’s foul play, we look at you, and that has nothing to do with your flag. If you’re really liked and you get really large market share, it becomes more difficult to compete against you, and therefore you have a special responsibility not to use your size to make it more difficult for others. That special responsibility is what we police here, not success.
Google seems to have earned your particular attention. Why?
We’re in a digital, technological, industrial revolution. Everything is changing, not only the way we produce [but] the way we create value, the way capitalism is remunerated. It’s important that it happens in a legal way. The level of the fine [against Google] is a reflection of one thing: that it’s a big company. If you look at the percentage level of the fine, it’s very much plain vanilla.
Search-engine apps and browsers that compete with Google’s are findable and downloadable onto smartphones within seconds. Aren’t you basically protecting consumer laziness rather than consumer choice?
We know the strength of the out-of-the-box experience. If it’s there already and it’s working, why go look for something else? If the illegal Google behavior continued, then [as a competitor] you’d never have a chance of showing your products to potential customers. That has a negative trickle-down [effect] on innovation, because why invest in innovation if you find that it’s highly unlikely that you’d ever be able to show your innovative product to potential customers? What’s important for us as consumers is to enjoy the benefits of competition, and one of the obvious ones is that people will innovate.
Is the real object in reining in Google to limit its collection and concentration of data?
No, because that is not a thing you can do by enforcing competition law. [But] the European democracies are anxious to make sure that the digital revolution is framed by decisions taken by our democratically elected representatives. This is why you have the new set of rights of privacy, the right to be forgotten, the right of portability, the right to see the data stored on you, and so on. We want free competition, but we also want fair competition, and we’re willing to protect the individual, the citizen, in a balanced manner.
Google and Apple are appealing your rulings. Are you confident your decisions will stand?
I completely respect the fact that decisions can and will be appealed, and that our courts are independent. But we have done what we can to have high quality in our casework and full respect for due process.
Your investigation into Hollywood studios and Sky is ongoing. When will that conclude?
Even though we make speed a priority, we can never compromise on due process, access to files; it’s our obligation to be as thorough as possible in that respect. So I can give no deadline.
The studios and others in the industry say that licensing by territory is crucial to their revenues and ability to invest in content, including local content. Do you sympathize?
This is a very specific case about what choices you as a distributor have when it comes to passive sales, about whether Sky is free to accept passive sales or not. And yet it’s been made [out to be] about the financing of small, independent Scandinavian filmmakers. This is not the case. In competition law enforcement, you have a much more narrow framework. The European Parliament has been discussing how to enable more content to travel, because the sad thing in the European context is that very little content travels. It is quite amazing if you knew how rare it is in Denmark to see a Polish movie, a French movie.
Have you received complaints about the dominance or practices of U.S. streaming giants such as Netflix and Amazon?
No. We’re concerned not to blow a whistle if there is [simply] transformation in an industry that comes with technologies, digitalization, new ways of organizing. This is sometimes just competition at full play, not foul play. Even painful transformation will have to have its full run, as long as it’s legal.
How does it feel to have been the inspiration for the scheming, ambitious, maritally challenged Birgitte Nyborg?
One of the differences is that I’m still happily married. Some of my colleagues said, “Well, [government] is not like [in ‘Borgen’].” But I think it is a lot like it’s portrayed. Sometimes I think, how did they know? And of course they knew because the way politicians interact is based on how humans interact.