BERLIN — If Facebook, Google and Co. were hoping for an easier ride under Ursula von der Leyen, they may want to think again.
The European Commission president-elect left little doubt on Thursday that she intends to confront the U.S. tech giants head-on.
Delivering a speech in honor of Shoshana Zuboff, a Harvard scholar best known for her book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” von der Leyen made clear that she ascribes to Zuboff’s view that the U.S. tech industry “knows, decides and decides who decides.” Zuboff was the recipient of this year’s Axel Springer Award, an honor bestowed by German media group Axel Springer, one of the co-owners of POLITICO Europe.
Reflecting on her own experience with major tech platforms, von der Leyen told a small audience at Springer headquarters in Berlin: “The platforms are less interested in what I did yesterday. Their interest lies in what I will do tomorrow and why I do that. It is all about predicting and influencing my behavior, your behavior.”
Though EU citizens deliver such data voluntarily “click by click,” von der Leyen stressed that Europeans needed to “shape our own approach to the digital world,” signaling that the EU needed to build on measures such as the so-called right to be forgotten and data protection regulations like GDPR.
“Europe puts values, rights, trust and the rule of law above all else,” she said. “This must also apply to the European approach to the digital age. For us, new technologies will never mean new values.”
The Commission’s incoming leader went on to say that the EU has so far only taken the “first steps” in its regulatory push.
“Europe has a long tradition in balancing the power of government and market while attaching particular priority to the individual. That is Europe’s great advantage in shaping the digital age.”
In accepting the award, Zuboff turned to von der Leyen and said, “we’re all counting on you.”
“All of us can sleep a little bit better tonight knowing that you with your values and your vision are going to be at the helm of the region on earth that is already the front line, the vanguard, of this new possibility, of a digital future that is first and foremost a human future,” Zuboff said.
Describing the business strategy of Facebook and tech companies as “thievery,” Zuboff called the data collection of personal information that drives the U.S. platforms’ business models a “market failure” that could only be remedied with tougher laws.
She argued that countries must “outlaw the taking of human experience.”
Past recipients of the Axel Springer Award, named after founder of the German publishing house, have included the very men Zuboff has in her sights: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.
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