Tough Talk

EU com­mis­sioner Mar­grethe Vestager on cor­po­rate duty, fines and ‘Bor­gen’ com­par­isons

Variety - - Contents - By HENRY CHU @hen­ry­hchu

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 pre­in­stall 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 high­est­pro­file 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.

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.

We want free com­pe­ti­tion, but we also want fair com­pe­ti­tion, and we’re will­ing to pro­tect the in­di­vid­ual.” Mar­grethe Vestager

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.

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.

EU’S Watch­dog Com­pe­ti­tion com­mis­sioner Mar­grethe Vestager says big com­pa­nies have a spe­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity not to abuse their size in the mar­ket.

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