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Europe’s chief regulator Margrethe Vestager on reining in tech: ‘This is the biggest wake-up call we’ve ever had’

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Europe's Commissioner for Competition, Margrethe Vestager, at the 2017 Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal
Margrethe Vestager, Europe's commissioner for competition, at the 2017 Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal.
Web Summit

When Margrethe Vestager last appeared on our Recode Decode podcast, in September 2016, she had already made a name for herself as Europe’s commissioner for competition, launching an antitrust case against Google and an investigation into how Apple pays taxes.

But now, as it becomes clearer how those companies were used to manipulate the 2016 U.S. elections, Vestager feels validated in her distrust of Silicon Valley’s power. Speaking with Recode’s Kara Swisher at the 2017 Web Summit in Lisbon, Portugal, she said the government has to move fast to ensure that tech does not subvert society.

“We want a free market, but we know that the paradox of a ‘free’ market is that sometimes you have to intervene,” she said. “You have to make sure it’s not the law of the jungle, but the laws of democracy that works.”

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On the new podcast, Vestager said her commission will continue to focus on preventing large tech incumbents like Google from stifling competition from startups. But she’s also thinking about the secrecy surrounding the algorithms that power much of the internet.

“I think some of these algorithms, they’ll have to go to law school before they’re let out,” Vestager said. “You cannot just say, ‘What happens in the black box stays in the black box.’ You have to teach your algorithm what it can do and what it cannot do, because otherwise there is a risk that the algorithms will learn the tricks of the old cartels.”

Overall, she said, the people who depend on technology every day need to decide whether they can really trust the companies that provide it. If not, then they need to demand more accountability and transparency.

“We have to take our democracy back,” Vestager said. “We cannot leave it to Facebook or Snapchat or anyone else. We have to take democracy back and renew it. Society is about people and not about technology.”

“This is the biggest wake-up call we’ve ever had,” she added. “We’ve seen the potential. Now we get the fear of what will happen. If we don’t relearn to trust technology, then we’ll never make any good of the potential.”

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This article originally appeared on Recode.net.