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Margrethe Vestager explains the EU's position in the global battle for data

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By Méabh Mc Mahon
Margrethe Vestager explains the EU's position in the global battle for data
Copyright  euronews
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Margrethe Vestager is the Executive Vice President of the European Commission, responsible for all things digital. She is also very well known for being the most powerful regulator of big tech in the world. In an exclusive interview recorded during the State of the Union 2021, an event organised by the European University Institute, the Vice President tells us about the global battle for data, Europe's place in this battle, data sharing, big tech and more.

To watch the full interview with Executive Vice President, Margrethe Vestager, click on the media player above.

Is the European Union in the global battle for data? Why and where are you hoping that this battle will lead?

Margrethe Vestager, European Commission Executive Vice-President responsible for digital:

"I can tell you that we are because as we speak data is being created everywhere, and since Europe is such an industrial continent, a continent where we now digitalise everything, whether that be mobility, our electricity grids, agriculture, our health systems, we harvest data all the time. With that data, we can do better, we can innovate more, we can build stronger businesses. Of course, we can also use this data to fight climate change. As you say, this is a global matter because we are also in a geopolitical context where we have both systemic rivalry, economic competition, but also the need for partnerships on this planet. So how we deal with data, how we enable it to flow once we trust it, but how we also retain it if it's our own personal data, well, that is what we have ahead of us both for practical implementation, but also to get the legislation right".

If you do look at the US and China, they are innovating very fast, China very aggressively. When will the EU catch up? The talk of an EU single market of data looks fine and nice on paper, but it feels a little bit abstract.

Margrethe Vestager, European Commission Executive Vice-President responsible for digital:

"Yeah, I think it's really important not to underestimate our Europe because we still have the highest number of patents, they actually come from Europe and also we have a very vibrant start-up innovation community. I think it's important not to see Europe as lagging behind when starting this new big chapter of digitisation where data really, really, really makes the difference because it's so much more than data coming from search or from shopping. This is data about how the real world actually functions. The challenge ahead of us is to make sure that data is being pooled, shared and used for the better. Here, of course, we need to do something in particular because so many small and medium-sized businesses should be part of that. It is a bigger hurdle for smaller businesses to get to use both their own data, but also pooled data rather than a big business that has a difference, that has a different setup. So, of course, we need to do things specifically to match sort of the European economic context and make the most of it".

What about the business community? Would there be incentives put in place to encourage them to share data because they're pretty reluctant it seems?

Margrethe Vestager, European Commission Executive Vice-President responsible for digital:

"Yes, they are. I think one of the reasons why they are reluctant to share data is that it's, you know, they're always being told that they're sitting on gold. They may not really use it, but if they're sitting on gold, then why share it? I think there is a lack of legal clarity, but also contractual clarity. So we are working on something that we call data spaces. It's basically a metaphor for getting the contractual obligations right so that I know if I'm a business owner, I put my data in this data space and I take out maybe some other data that I know that I can do that safely. We do that in quite a number of areas. The most topical right now is, of course, the health data space because we have seen under COVID how important it was to be able to analyse health data, to analyse molecules, to analyse the virus in itself. That, of course, also entails data looking into how vaccines work. Of course, that is also a lot of data processing that goes into it. So building these data spaces could make businesses feel much more confident that they could use data to develop their business and to develop their business models to rely much more on the digital economy".

The Data Governance Act that you presented last November is a first step and it's been presented as an alternative to how big tech handle and shared data. Tell us about your concerns and your experiences so far with big tech. How they're dealing with data? Why do you think it's important to do something about it?

Margrethe Vestager, European Commission Executive Vice-President responsible for digital:

"Well, what you said is actually, I think, a very valuable point. To find a model where people are not obliged to share data, but if they want to do it, they can do it in a way that's transparent. One of the things in the Data Governance Act is sort of the template to set up intermediaries so that you have a neutral partner to receive data, but also to enable data to be used by others. It's an intermediary who would know that everything is fine because I think a lot of people worry about privacy rules or proprietary data and all of that. That, of course, is the different and more dynamic model because it allows many more to participate in the data economy. With some big tech, you see this giant accumulation of data that makes it very, very difficult for others to get a competitive edge because the more data you have, well, the better you can, for instance, foresee what will be the demand patterns from customers. Unfortunately, we also see that some big tech, they use data in a way that is not really in accordance with competition rules. We have the preliminary conclusions from the Amazon case. Amazon is enabling Amazon retail access to data from all the many merchants on the Amazon marketplace, where they, the merchants themselves, do not have access to the same level of really high-quality data about consumer behaviour, that is for Amazon retail. That gives them an unprecedented benefit. So, of course, it's the legislation, the Governance Act, the Data Act, to come later, but it's also up to vigilant competition law enforcement to make sure that the benefits of the data economy are actually widely spread".

Companies like Facebook, Google have been gobbling up our data for the last couple of years and they've been reaping the economic benefits. Is this Data Governance Act and the information that we're expecting to come out of the Commission a little bit later this year the way of catching up on them?

Margrethe Vestager, European Commission Executive Vice-President responsible for digital:

"Well, it will produce a different model and a different way of governing data. While this is ongoing, I also think that there is sort of an awakening about what it takes for us really to take care of our own data, both when it's personal data and when it's not personal data. As long as it's not misused, I think it's a really good thing when, for instance, digital service providers ask people: would you accept that this app will keep tracking what you do on your phone also when you're not actively using this app so that people are presented with easy choices as to how to not only have rights, but also enforce rights when it comes to ownership of the data? But it's also about how to make sure that I know when data is being created about what I do and what I do not do online and at the same time to distinguish between personal data, which has its own governance and more industrial data because when it comes to industrial data, we have a completely different set of possibilities because we don't need to have the same concerns as when it is personal data. In that, of course, we're pushing forward as fast as we can".

Have you had any reaction from big tech on your proposals?

Margrethe Vestager, European Commission Executive Vice-President responsible for digital:

"Well, not so much. I think it's quite early days. At the beginning of every sort of deliberation in the European Parliament and Council, we usually get a quite positive approach then we tend to see later that there are some efforts to kind of make the proposals less intrusive, or in my eyes, less effective when it comes to making the marketplace open and contestable. But that remains to be seen".

Values here in Europe and our rights are topics close to our hearts. MEPs are scrutinising the Governance Act as we speak. They are saying it should, of course, be based on privacy and transparency and respect for fundamental rights. How are you going to strike that balance?

Margrethe Vestager, European Commission Executive Vice-President responsible for digital:

"The point of the European model is indeed that we will take sort of our speaking line from all our speeches and put them into everyday life because otherwise the speeches, they are basically nullified. So the challenging thing here is to say, well, if we want to enable people to enforce their rights and at the same time to enable our economy to get the best that data can produce, then we'll have to strike a balance and also to differentiate between different types of data. I think that is a very trivial point, but also very important because not everything is personal data and not all data that has been anonymized can be traced back to the original data owner. I think we need that kind of nuance in the debates in order to enable a setup that will create trust, not only for those of us who provide data, but also for the businesses who will actively use it so that they can do that with legal certainty and go ahead with their innovative processes".

You mentioned how one thing can be a statement from the Commission and another thing is what's happening on the ground. Assessments have shown that EU countries can't enforce the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) rules properly. What's foreseen now to ensure a stronger oversight with this?

Margrethe Vestager, European Commission Executive Vice-President responsible for digital:

"Well, indeed, one of the reasons that we know that there are a number of differences between member states when it comes to the enforcement of our privacy rights is indeed that we watch this very closely and we work very closely with the European Data Protection Board and national authorities in order for best practices to be shared as fast as possible and for the sort of the real-life effects of having rights when it comes to privacy for them to be more and more the same all over the union. Since this was new, when it was implemented, I think almost to the date three years ago, we still have work to do in the implementation phase. For everyone working in legislation, the co-legislature for us in the Commission, of course, it's a really valuable reminder that we should make sure that the legislation that we propose eventually pass in parliament and council, that it is enforceable, that it can be made real-life on ground, that the finest of all compromises doesn't make things so tricky that it becomes really difficult to make it work in real life".

Data is necessary for the development of artificial intelligence and just a few weeks ago you put on the table your proposal for a European wide artificial intelligence regulation. It has been widely welcomed, but some have criticised it as being too vague in some areas and it could contain some loopholes. What would you say to these critics?

Margrethe Vestager, European Commission Executive Vice-President responsible for digital:

"It's a really important discussion, what the definitions are in a legal proposal, so that us who table it and those who pass it have the same understanding and those who use it then can see that it makes sense, so that if ever challenged by courts, the court has a good line of reasoning and we do not get some surprises down the road. We have made quite an effort to make a future proof definition of what is artificial intelligence because it's a group of technologies. When we are focusing on the use cases here, what we are saying is, for instance, is when it's used for predicting, assisting in decision making, finding patterns so that instead of focusing on the exact technology, then focusing on what is it that it can actually achieve".

What kind of benefits could data-centric societies and the development of artificial intelligence have?

Margrethe Vestager, European Commission Executive Vice-President responsible for digital:

"Well, I am really enthusiastic about this. I have seen, for instance, when it comes to doing a cancer diagnosis, you can use artificial intelligence to help your doctor get a much more nuanced reading of all the many tests that can be done on your blood so that you get a better diagnosis and you get it faster. So that treatment, if that is needed, can get started. It can be predicting how water will flow so that you can easily protect yourself against the effects of climate change. It can be how to use fertiliser or pesticides in agriculture, depending on the quality of the soil, the weather conditions. Artificial intelligence can help the farmer to minimise the use of fertiliser and minimise the use of pesticides. Of course, the very trivial examples are that we get a recommendation for the next movie that we might like to see or the next music that we might like to hear. So from the very important life or death helping out to get a diagnosis fast and good to something that we use in everyday life and basically everything in between. Artificial intelligence is here already and I think it will spread to almost everything we do".

Let's discuss the European health data space because obviously health is on our minds this year with the pandemic. When could the European data space really become a reality?

Margrethe Vestager, European Commission Executive Vice-President responsible for digital:

"Well, I think it will take still a bit of time because in the health data space we have to be very specific because health data is really personal. So it's really important that we get this right to create the trust that people's health data can be in a health data space. In particular, since we know that the majority of Europeans actually say, no, we are not interested in sharing our health data for no matter what purpose. That, of course, is something that we have to work on to find ways for people to trust that the way that it is set up is secure so that we can use this data to find better cures, better to predict what would be the long term effect if, for instance, COVID is treated in one way instead of another way so that we can engage to improve our health systems. So we are very carefully working internally, everyone who knows about this. So there will still be some months before we can launch it".

What do you want your legacy to be when it comes to this battle for global data, when it comes to regulation and policy? What do you want to see actually set in stone before you leave office?

Margrethe Vestager, European Commission Executive Vice-President responsible for digital:

"I still have around three and a half years to go, so I think I should focus on the job at hand and not so much on whatever legacy. But the job at hand is to give citizens confidence that the markets actually serve them, that technology actually serves them as humans because that is the point of a democracy, the integrity and the dignity of each and every one of us. That is the starting point. That is what I think about basically every day when I get up in the morning because I think that is the core of our society. Technology should know that and the market should know that, that we are not just the raw material or the products. It is for humans to be at the centre of both market and technology".