Digital giants beware, EC’s competition enforcer tells young European lawyers

Ben Rigby reports from the European Young Bar Association’s summer conference in Copenhagen
Press conference by Executive Vice-President of European Commission Margrethe VESTAGER on EU Merger Controls in Brussels, Belgium on Sep. 6, 2022.

Margrethe Vestager; headline speaker at EYBA’s summer conference Alexandros Michailidis; Shutterstock

Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s top antitrust enforcer, has told young European lawyers they have a key role to play in keeping the world’s digital giants in check.

Delivering the keynote address at the European Young Bar Association’s (EYBA’s) summer conference in Copenhagen, the EC’s executive vice president set out the risks Big Tech corporations posed to society, including data misuse and concentration of power, and urged the audience to be part of the solution. 

While the former Danish politician emphasised the benefits of digital giants, drawing a parallel to the importance of such beings in Norse mythology for the Danish lawyers in the audience, she also underscored the urgent need for regulation.

While such digital giants could “deliver even more efficiency to our economy”, much needed given climate change, the challenges of an ageing society, and the need for economic growth, “like the Vikings, we also need our giants to behave themselves”, she said.

Vestager, whose second term as head of the EC’s competition enforcement ends this October, was speaking on Friday (21 June), on the eve of the EC’s preliminary finding on 24 June that Apple is in breach of the Digital Markets Act (DMA), potentially leading to a fine of up to 10% of its global revenues. 

Vestager said the EC had taken a proactive leadership role in regulating Big Tech companies, assuring the audience that “we keep an eye on our giants”, and reinforcing its commitment to ensuring responsible behaviour and maintaining a fair and competitive digital landscape. She namechecked Amazon, Google and other global tech companies.

According to her perspective, effective regulations were imperative to ensure that technological advancements positively contributed to society without compromising competitive market dynamics or consumer rights.

Her speech delineated the proactive approach of the EU in addressing the monopolistic inclinations of large tech firms, referencing the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which she said had set a global standard for data privacy and influenced analogous legislation in several countries, including Japan, South Korea, Canada and the United States.

Vestager also addressed the EU’s pivotal role in spearheading numerous antitrust cases against tech giants like Amazon and Facebook, involving potential abuses of market power. 

She said these experiences informed the development of the DMA, which came into force in November 2022 and established precise guidelines for digital companies to prevent undermining competition or consumer choice. 

Equally central to her discourse was the significance of the recently introduced Digital Services Act, which sets out to protect consumers by preventing illegal and harmful online activities.

In closing her address, Vestager reflected on the challenges posed by today’s digital giants, emphasising that her audience was embarking on a new digital era that artificial intelligence would profoundly transform. 

“I am absolutely sure that one lesson from the Viking myth will remain relevant: power is never solely good or bad; it’s a mix of both, and the outcome largely depends on how we manage it.” 

The EYBA’s summer conference also heard from Carlsberg’s head of legal, Ulrik Andersen, who spoke on the impact of Russian sanctions on the brewer’s operations, a counterpoint to an earlier address by the former Danish ambassador to NATO, Michael Zilmer-Johns, who addressed the new world order theme underpinning the event.

Other speakers included Maersk’s deputy general counsel, Casper Munch, who discussed the impacts of piracy on the Red Sea on international shipping. 

The Danish young lawyers’ group Djøf Lawyers organised the event, which was followed by Saturday’s AGM, which saw the outgoing president, Sergiy Barbashin, the first Ukrainian lawyer to hold the role, succeeded by Belfast solicitor Shannon Gawley of Carson McDowell. Chiara Palombi of EY Studio Legale Tributario was elected vice president.

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