Facebook boss in Brussels on plans to rein-in tech

Facebook boss in Brussels on plans to rein-in tech

Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg will meet the EU’s digital and industry commissioners next week, days before the EU presents proposals to rein in US tech giants and Chinese rivals.

In addition to European competition and digital commissioner Margrethe Vestager and internal market commissioner Thierry Breton, Mr Zuckerberg will also meet justice chief Vera Jourova.

“Next week, Mark Zuckerberg will travel to Europe to participate in the Munich Security Conference, and meet with European decision-makers in Brussels to discuss a framework for new rules and regulation for the internet,” Facebook said in a statement.

Ms Vestager and Mr Breton are set to announce proposals on February 19 to create a single European data market aimed at challenging the dominance of US tech giants such as Facebook, Google and Amazon, according to a European Commission proposal seen by Reuters.

They will also propose rules to govern the use of artificial intelligence. The Commission is expected to seek feedback before finalizing the rules.

Facebook is already in Ms Vestager’s crosshairs over its use of data collected by the company over the years from classified ads players and its right to use their data for any purpose including to launch competing products.

Mr Zuckerberg’s last public appearance in Brussels was in 2018 when he met European Parliament leaders to answer questions on how the data of 2.7 million European users was improperly shared with political consultancy Cambridge Analytica.

Meanwhile, Google and EU lawyers are waging a courtroom battle over whether the company is a key internet innovator or a “colossus of the digital age” that shields its position by crushing rivals.

As many as seven billion daily searches make the US giant “the front page of the internet,” Nicholas Khan, a lawyer for the European Commission told a panel of judges in the opening session of a three-day hearing at the EU General Court in Luxembourg.

“The case is, in a nutshell, about what users are presented with, having made a search,” Mr Khan said.

Google search provides “an immensely powerful lever to direct users’ attention to any specific search market where Google might wish to develop a presence. No other internet player is in any remotely comparable position”.

Google, which is owned by Alphabet, has argued in court that the EU went too far with a 2017 EU fine, then a record €2.4bn and an order to change how it shows shopping search results from rivals.

Such a ruling a decade earlier would have forced Google “to abandon its innovative technologies and its improved designs”, said Thomas Graf, a lawyer for Google said.

The court face-off over the EU’s first Google case sets the stage for pending appeals over separate fines by the Brussels regulator for unfairly linking apps to Android software and for thwarting advertising rivals.

Google also risks early-stage competition scrutiny into local search, jobs and vacation rentals services.

The judges’ initial ruling -- expected in the coming months -- would mark the end of another chapter in the decade-long antitrust battle between Google and the European Commission, which accused the company of using its vast market power to crush competition when users search for products online.

The company claims its ultimate aim was always to provide pertinent results for users that were also relevant for advertisers.

Changes to the way it ranked results, such as the Panda algorithm change in 2011 that pushed down several rival shopping search services, were intended to filter out poor-quality sites and “dramatically improved Google’s results”, Google’s lawyer Meredith Pickford told the court.

Mr Khan, the EU lawyer, said there was “nothing natural about the way the shopping unit was prominently placed” in boxes with photos above the usual search results.

Google doesn’t contest many of the EU’s findings, he said, such as how it used “demotion algorithms” to give less prominence to search rivals.

Stakes are high for this case and a loss for EU commissioner Vestager could set back a wave of enforcement that’s seen her also pursue Amazon and start looking at Facebook.

The path to punishing Google was circuitous.

Regulators appeared to waver by seeking a settlement where Google would make changes to search display to end the probe without fines.

That sparked fury from European publishers and politicians and led to the EU reversing direction and moving toward a penalty after Ms Vestager took charge in 2014.

- Reuters and Bloomberg

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