If you want an indication of how Margrethe Vestager views Silicon Valley’s tech giants, look no further than the way she uses their services.
Europe’s competition commissioner uses Facebook and Twitter for work, but she keeps her accounts carefully scrubbed of personal information. She has installed WhatsApp on her phone but blocked the app from compiling a list of her friends. “I don’t allow them to trawl my contact book,” is how she put it in an interview with POLITICO. When communicating with friends and family, she prefers to use SMS text messages.
She has not opened a Gmail account and makes a point of using alternatives to Google Search, such as its competitor Bing or DuckDuckGo, a privacy-friendly search engine that claims not to track its users. She regularly wipes her devices’ browsing history and deletes the cookies installed by internet firms like Google or Facebook to track users online.
This obsession with digital hygiene — by one of the most powerful people in the world of tech — reveals a sense of suspicion that has only grown during her time in Brussels spent rummaging under the bonnets of large internet firms.
“The more I have reflected, the more private I have become,” Vestager said.
Her mounting misgivings are also visible in the focus of her work and in her public statements.
“We need to understand what happens when data is the prime currency of a company. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Eventually, consumers will have to pay” — Margrethe Vestager
At the podium, she rarely misses an opportunity to warn of Silicon Valley’s intrusions into people’s private lives.
In an address at a film festival in Switzerland in August, she compared the behavior of companies like Google and Facebook — whose business models involve the harvesting and use of personal data — to the protagonist of the Bulgarian film “Godless“: “A nurse whose only interest in her patients is selling their identity cards on the black market.”
The following month, delivering a TED talk in New York, she argued that careful oversight of tech companies is necessary for the smooth functioning of the online economy.
“No one’s going to agree to hand over their medical data, or step into a car that’s driven by an algorithm, unless they trust the companies they’re dealing with,” she said. “And that trust isn’t always there. Today, for example, less than a quarter of Europeans trust online businesses to protect their personal information.”
Vestager calls herself a “described herself as a “techno-optimist” | Keld Navntoft/AFP via Getty Images
Vestager’s most high-profile cases have so far concerned tax practices (such as the €13 billion tax bill she doled out to Apple in August 2016) or unfair competitive practices (like her €2.4 billion slapdown of Google shopping in June).
But she has shown a growing interest in a career-defining case tackling the way companies collect and use personal data. Officials in her department say her team has pushed hard for them to come up with cases in the area.
“We need to understand what happens when data is the prime currency of a company,” she said in an interview last year. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Eventually, consumers will have to pay.”
In December 2016, she threatened to derail Microsoft’s $26 billion acquisition of LinkedIn, over concerns that the U.S. company could use its dominance on computer desktops to prevent the emergence of a competitor to the professional social network that would offer its users better privacy terms.
In May 2017, she sanctioned Facebook for misleading officials during the review of its $22 billion acquisition of WhatsApp over what it would be able to do with the company’s user data.
Vestager’s mistrust of Big Tech is all the more remarkable for the role social media played in her political career. In Denmark, before her move to Brussels, she was a social media pioneer, using Twitter to set the political agenda during her rise from leader of a small party to kingmaker in the Danish parliament and the country’s deputy prime minister.
Journalists nicknamed her “the Twitter Queen,” according to Benjamin Rud Elberth, a Danish expert in political social media. “In Denmark, we say that ‘news doesn’t break, it tweets,'” he said. “Vestager was very often the main tweeter of the news, setting the tone and framing early, controlling the way the media wrote about the [issue of the day].”
Vestager has taken pains to blunt the sharpness of her criticism, insisting she has nothing against digital technology per say.
On her arrival in the European capital, she declared herself a keen online shopper. “It is very practical because online the shops are always open!” she said.
At a technology conference in London last week, she said she had so many apps on her iPhone that she often can’t find the one she wants to use. Her solution: “I color organize my apps. It looks good, and you can remember where they are.”
As her profile as one of the tech world’s biggest foils has grown, Vestager has taken pains to blunt the sharpness of her criticism, insisting she has nothing against digital technology per say.
“I remember how it was to try to find something on the internet before the invention of the search machine,” she told POLITICO. “Oh, my God, you never got there.” At the conference in London, she described herself as a “techno-optimist.”
Margrethe Vestager at the Web Summit in Lisbon | Antonio Cotrim/EPA
In the meantime, she continues to use social media to project her message and brand within and beyond the Brussels bubble. She is one of few commissioners to personally manage her own Twitter account.
Vestager’s stream of tweets takes her 223,000 followers behind the scenes of her job (and only her job): the travel, the meetings, the jokes and the occasional reflection, sometimes vaguely political, sometimes not.
At the end of a press conference at the Lisbon Web Summit earlier this week, she displayed what has become one of her signature social media moves: turning her iPhone on the press pack to tweet a picture of the microphones and cameras pointed at her.
Mark Scott contributed reporting.