In Europe, U.S. tech companies have faced massive headaches on two separate fronts: Competition law and privacy.
Soon, they might have to battle both fronts at once.
The European Union competition watchdog is exploring whether the way tech firms collect and control massive sums of personal information — or “big data” — may violate antitrust rules, the agency’s commissioner Margrethe Vestager said on Sunday at the DLD Conference in Munich.
Any move to scrutinize data collection could have a big impact on digital ads, most of which hinge on user data.
While the agency has not opened an investigation, Vestager did clearly stress that the issue is on her radar. And her address highlighted the potent weight European regulators give to privacy concerns when it comes to tech.
“If just a few companies control the data you need to satisfy customers and cut costs, that could give them the power to drive their rivals out of the market,” she said at the onset of the conference. “Then we may have to step in in order to restore the level playing field.”
Vestager did step in earlier this year, opening the EU formal antitrust case against Google on its shopping product and an investigation on Android. Google has pushed backed forcefully on both cases; the shopping one could potentially result in a fine of up to $6 billion.
On Sunday, Vestager did not bring up the Google cases, though she did address the Android probe during the audience questions, arguing that similar cases against Google’s Android elsewhere proves that her agency’s position does not reflect European protectionism — a charge European lawmakers have faced often, including from President Barack Obama.
As she has in prior comments about Google, Vestager noted the tangible benefits of substantial data collection from tech companies. She mentioned e-commerce and transportation (without mentioning specific companies). But then, as she has in her comment about Google’s case, Vestager claimed she weighs these benefits against the potential harm to other businesses.
Her comments suggested the agency may focus on digital ad sellers like Google and Facebook, which are fueled by personal online data, as well as newcomers like Uber, which can use its data portfolio to overrun rivals.
European lawmakers have consistently questioned what data tech companies collect, and how. Vestager argued that consumers should exert far more of the control. “As consumers, we still have the right to be treated fairly,” she said, “as if we had been paid in cash.”
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.