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Washington watches as EU steps up scrutiny of Big Tech

 |  October 10, 2019

By RICHARD WATERS, Financial Times 

Washington’s antitrust enforcers have a severe case of Margrethe envy. That would be Margrethe Vestager, who is taking on a second five-year stint as Europe’s competition chief, this time with added responsibility for overall digital regulation. 
As American politicians and regulators look at ways of restraining the power of Big Tech, a tendency to look across the Atlantic has been understandable. Brussels began its first informal probe into Google nearly a decade ago, and Ms Vestager has since earned a reputation as the regulator who has done the most to rattle Silicon Valley. But her success has been mixed and it wouldn’t do to follow too closely in her footsteps. Instead, it is where the European digital chief trains her guns next that matters. 

Ms Vestager’s first term was marked by success in extracting cash for perceived wrongdoing, including more than €8bn in antitrust fines from Google and a demand for Apple to cough up €13bn in an illegal state aid case (all of these cases are under appeal). 

But the fines belie the fact that she hasn’t done anything to change the competitive dynamics in digital markets.h

Take Google. The EU took aim at two of its core business drivers: How it steers search traffic to other Google services, and how it uses Android to lock users into its mobile services. 
Yet the rival companies who were supposedly the beneficiaries of the search case faded away long before the commission took action. And Google’s mobile services — like its Play store for apps — look too deeply entrenched in the Android world to allow much room for competition. 
Cases like these highlight the difficulty of restraining powerful and self-reinforcing digital platforms. By the time regulators notice — let alone reach the point of pressing for remedies — it is often too late.

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