By Gwyneth K. Shaw
As the European Commission’s top antitrust official, Margrethe Vestager has long made technology companies around the world squirm. As the keynote speaker of this year’s Stefan A. Riesenfeld Symposium, she once again urged the EU push to protect consumers — in their wallets and online — hopefully in tandem with the United States and other global governments .
The fact that multiple antitrust authorities around the world are looking at digital markets is a good thing, said Vestager, whose formal title is European Commissioner for Competition and Executive Vice-President of the European Commission for a Europe Fit for the Digital Age.
“It means that there is an international consensus, that action needs to be taken to protect consumers, to protect businesses in this market,” she said. “The fact is that we need new ways of safeguarding competition.”
Vestager was the keynote speaker at the symposium, titled “Big Money, Big Enforcement: New Frontiers In Global Antitrust Regulation.” She is also this year’s winner of the award named for Riesenfeld ’ 37, a legendary Berkeley Law international law professor, which recognizes a commitment to the values and ideas Riesenfeld espoused and advocated.
Each year, the symposium offers a forum for academic and pragmatic discussion of global antitrust issues, gathering noted scholars, policymakers, and legal practitioners to discuss the issues and concerns around different approaches to antitrust policies. After Vestager spoke, subsequent panels featured prominent antitrust lawyers as well as academics from Berkeley Law, the University of Chicago, and more.
The event was co-sponsored by the Berkeley Journal of International Law (BJIL), the school’s William G. and Ariadna Miller Institute for Global Challenges and the Law, and the Berkeley Center for Law and Business (BCLB), which featured Vestager’s address as one of its monthly “Berkeley Boost” webinars.
BJIL co-editors-in-chief Shannon Sciaretta and Aaron Cheung and Managing Editor Clara Barnosky said when the journal’s leaders were considering this year’s recipient, they wanted someone who was both well-known in the antitrust field and who had success with enforcement against major multinational corporations. They were also looking for someone poised to make big strides in the area.
“Commissioner Vestager hit every mark,” Sciaretta said. “She has dedicated her career to public service and government and has used her position to effect widespread change of EU laws. She is also not afraid to take on powerful companies and has a proven track record of success in protecting consumers.
“With her dedication to public service and intrepid policy decisions, she reflects so many of the values the Riesenfeld Award celebrates.”
Vestager Zoomed into the event, which featured some speakers and panels in person. She was introduced by UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ, who called Vestager an amazing woman.
“We owe her a debt of gratitude for her dedication to protecting global consumers, to supporting a truly free and fair market, and to ensuring the tech giants are appropriately regulated and held accountable,” Christ said.
In almost a decade as the EU’s competition commissioner, and with an expanded portfolio over the past two and a half years, Vestager has levied billions in fines against tech companies — including Apple and Google. During her address and an ensuing Q&A, she made it clear that new rules are coming, hopefully in tandem with American policymakers.
Increasingly, she said, the bigger tech companies are acting as gatekeepers, both restricting what consumers and users can access and hiding the algorithmic underpinnings of what they do. She cited as an example the case of Apple, which the Dutch government recently fined for allegedly not providing a non-Apple way to pay for apps in the company’s app store. The company, she said, seems willing to accept the fines rather than comply with the rules.
Proposed new regulations could change that, Vestager noted. One, the Digital Markets Act, would force “gatekeeper” companies to level the playing field in a host of ways. For example, it would mandate third-party interoperability with the larger platform, and allow businesses that use a platform (think Facebook or the Google Play Store) access to the data their customers generate.
Another proposal, the Digital Services Act, would promote stronger privacy and safety measures online. The package would put the EU “on the frontier of a whole new approach to regulating tech platforms,” Vestager said.
She’s encouraged that the current discussion is truly global, and that the EU’s efforts will inspire other nations to follow suit.
“The EU and the U.S. may not end up with exactly the same laws, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that we share the same basic vision when it comes to developing digital policy to protect our citizens, and to keep our markets, fair, and open,” she said.
Berkeley Law Professor Katerina Linos, the Miller Institute’s co-faculty director, sees much at stake in this trans-Atlantic dialogue. For example, she said Meta, the parent organization of Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp, among other subsidiaries, recently threatened to withdraw Facebook from Europe if the proposed policies are a burden.
“At a moment when there is widespread agreement across the Atlantic that more needs to be done to regulate the tech giants, it was wonderful to have Europe’s most prominent and ambitious regulator, Margrethe Vestager, outline her philosophy and answer pressing questions,” Linos said.
The broader event, BJIL’s first large-scale hybrid effort, posed a number of logistical challenges, Cheung and Sciaretta said. They praised staff from the Miller Institute, BCLB, and UC Berkeley’s audiovisual and information technology units, things went smoothly for those attending virtually and in person, so the discussions could stand out. (Recordings of the event will be uploaded soon to the event’s website.
“We accomplished our goal of sparking discussion about the varied and unique systems that exist internationally in enforcing antitrust law. We also produced a newsworthy event,” Cheung said. “We hoped to create a space where students and attorneys alike could engage with cutting-edge ideas about global antitrust, and we feel we were able to actualize it.”