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Data-hungry platforms ‘control how we see the world’

18 Sep 2019 / data law Print

Data-hungry platforms now ‘control how we see the world’ – EU commissioner

Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager (pictured) has told the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE) that the EU must be based in the rule of law as a visible sign of commitment never to fall back on the tyranny and violence of the last century.

Speaking on security and trust in a digital world, in Copenhagen at the CCBE standing committee on 13 September, the commissioner said that the rule of law is a promise that the law will protect everyone, not just the rich and powerful.

“Europe’s lawyers are the ones who make the rule of law a reality,” she said.  

“You’re the ones who stick to the task of applying the law,” she told the assembled lawyers, “even while voices around you are clamouring for shortcuts to be taken.”

The commissioner said that as the world changes and new types of power and influence grow, rules must change to keep up with those changes.

New power

Some digital businesses have new power over our lives, she said and the enormous possibilities for connection that digitisation creates must also be filtered – to find the product that we want, or the information we need.

The digital platforms that help us to do that through search engines, social media networks and online marketplaces, can become enormously powerful, by controlling our access to the benefits of digitisation.

The commissioner said that our reliance on these platforms as our window on the digital world has also handed over the power to decide what we see of the world.

Shape our knowledge

“Their choices, about which websites and businesses to put at the top of their rankings, and which to rank lower down, shape our knowledge of what’s out there.

“Some 95% of clicks in Google search results are on the very first result on page one. By the time you get to page two, you find that the first result gets only 1% of clicks.

“Many of us worry about what that filtering means for our own sense of truth and reality. It’s often very hard for us to know what’s being filtered out, and why.”

The commissioner said it was beyond doubt that platforms filter information in a way designed to further their own commercial interests.

Player and referee

“That can happen, for instance, when digital platforms are both player and referee – when they don’t just run the platform, but also compete with other companies that rely on the platform to do business.”

In those cases, the temptation to tweak the way the platform works, to make their own services more visible than their rivals, can be hard to resist, the commissioner said.

Consumers end up paying the price when this happens, the commissioner said.

“As competition in these markets fades away, they can lose out on choice, and on the innovation which competitive markets provide.”, she said.

Margrethe Vestager said that is why, two years ago, her Commission fined Google nearly €2.5 billion, for misusing the power of its platform to undermine its rivals in the market for comparison shopping.

The Commission is currently examining whether Google used its platform to help its job search business, Google for Jobs.

'Hunger for data'

Vestager said that consumers often don’t realise how deeply the platforms’ ‘hunger for data’ reaches into our lives.

“In the digital world, data can be hugely valuable. It can help companies compete, by finding new ways to cut costs, or understanding better the needs of their customers.

“It’s the raw material that trains artificial intelligence to take faster and better decisions than humans.

“And perhaps most importantly of all for these platforms, it helps them to target digital advertising better.

"It’s no coincidence that Google and Facebook, which are both determined collectors of data, are also leaders in advertising: between them, they get some six out of every ten digital advertising dollars that are spent in the US,” the commissioner said.

Undermine competition

She said that competition authorities must keep a close eye on the way that digital platforms deal with data and be prepared to take action, if they’re using their control of data to undermine competition and harm Europe’s consumers.

Vestager said that competition is a process – a sort of negotiation between consumers and businesses.

'Balance out the power'

“When we enforce the competition rules, we balance out the power in that negotiation, so consumers get a fair deal.

“But we don’t get to say what the final deal should be.

“So, if as a society, we want to lay down fundamental standards – if we want to define the market, to set out what’s acceptable and what isn’t – then what we need is not more competition enforcement. We need regulation,” she said.

The commissioner observed that when platforms manipulate the way we see the world, it affects our ability to understand the world around us.

“It can be hard for us to make good decisions, if we’re not confident of the facts. And that can stop our markets, and even our democracies, from working well.”

Broader rules

Data protection rules already give Europeans control over their own data, the commissioner said. But we may also need broader rules to make sure that the way companies collect and use data doesn’t harm the fundamental values of our society.

Commissioner Vestager concluded that she wanted to help society to get the most out of digitisation.

“As lawyers, you know that strong ethical rules are good for the profession. Because they give people confidence that their lawyers really do have their best interests at heart.

“And in a similar way, successful digitisation depends on having effective rules in place, to give people confidence that digitised businesses will treat them fairly.”



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