Following the yellow brick road? Vestager’s recent address on Europe’s digital future
Late last month, Margrethe Vestager – Vice-President of the European Commission – addressed the Technical University of Denmark on the “road to a better digital future”. Noting that it is innovators and early adopters – rather than policymakers – who drive technology and innovation forwards, Vestager remarked that ultimately it is for policymakers to ensure a smooth ride.
In that regard, Vestager touched upon several areas which are directly impacted by digital technology and where policymakers could exert influence. In this reflective piece we briefly highlight a few of those key themes and trace the potential journey along the yellow brick road to Europe’s digital future.
Vestager began by noting the importance of digital technology in the fight against climate change, but unfortunately stopped short of explaining how. On one level, digital innovation goes hand in hand with climate change mitigation and adaption – and of course is key in empowering people to fight climate change – but digital technology is also a significant contributor to climate change itself. With COP27 taking place next month, the role of the digital sphere – and ensuring its force for good in the fight against climate change – will likely feature on the agenda.
Vestager then touched upon how investment in digital technology contributes to smoothing the ride for faster and better development in this area. This is both in terms of funding the transition to digital, such as in respect of fibre broadband and 5G capabilities, along with the need to ensure that consumers are able to tap into the benefits of a digital world. In this regard, digital inequality has been exacerbated by Covid-19, and the ongoing cost of living crisis will likely serve to compound the issue further. However, as Vestager notes, inclusiveness in tech goes beyond a social goal: the greater the diversity, the better the technology will be produced – and it is clearly for policymakers to see this through.
Vestager also touched upon the work being done by the EC to promote the “Digital Skills Agenda”, including in relation to regulating Artificial Intelligence, data protection, the Internet of Things and cybersecurity. Of course, success in these areas will depend, to a large extent, on international co-operation: although Vestager noted that the “the EU does not exist in a bubble”, the analogy is equally applicable to all geographies.
It would have been remiss of the Commissioner for Competition not to have touched upon the impact of digital on competition policy. It likely won’t be news to many readers that several collective opt-out cases currently before the Tribunal focus on abuses of dominant position by Big Tech – including household names Google, Apple and Facebook.
Whilst the EU’s Digital Markets Act will be a further instrument in the EU’s toolbox to ensure that market power of Big Tech is kept in check, it remains to be seen whether the UK equivalent reforms – including the creation of the Digital Markets Unit within the CMA – will go far enough. All eyes are therefore to the CMA in flexing their post-Brexit muscles in order to assist, if not lead in, the global fight against Big Tech. This will be vital in ensuring that public enforcement against Big Tech is matched with the current force of private enforcement within the collective proceedings arena, with several of those claims now proceeding beyond certification and heading to trial.
Will the yellow brick road be Vestager’s “good road to travel on”? Indeed, the Emerald City might be the embodiment of the “brighter and better digital future” as envisaged by Vestager. There is reason to remain optimistic, as the sentiment behind Vestager’s address ought to transcend beyond the EU bubble when it comes to policy making.