Web Summit, Lisbon, 7 November 2018
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Ladies and gentlemen
It’s such a pleasure to be here in Lisbon for the Web Summit.
Six centuries ago, the great explorers stood in this very city, looking out at the Atlantic Ocean. That ocean had always been the edge of the world – the limit to how far curiosity could go. But now, something was different. Those explorers saw further. They saw beyond the horizon, to discoveries that would change the way Europeans saw the world around them.
And that’s how it feels to be here. Because this is a place where the future is taking shape.
The transformative power of technology
And it’s arriving so fast that it’s hard to know what’s coming next. None of us – not even the people in this hall – can say where digital technology will be in ten or twenty years.
But we can safely say that will change all our lives. Not just the lives of investors, or founders, or even regulators – but of every single person in our societies. It will affect parents who look to apps to find more hours in the day. Workers whose daily routines are shaped by lessons learned from data. And every single one of us, connected or not, who lives in a democracy that’s becoming more digital.
Life in this world of constantly changing technology can be like riding a rollercoaster, never being sure what twists and turns are coming next. And you know, rollercoasters can be fun. But only when you’re sure that you’re going to be safe.
The challenges of digital technology
And that, I think is the fundamental challenge that we’re facing right now. How to give people confidence that they’re safe, that their most fundamental values are secure, despite all the changes that are happening in their lives.
Digital technology has immense power to do good. But technology that powerful is bound to create risks as well. And it’s not an attack on technology to acknowledge that those risks are real.
Today’s communications technologies help to keep families in touch, to comfort the lonely, to widen our political debates. But they can also help harmful, untrue information spread faster than ever, unleashing violence and undermining democracy.
Data is giving us a new understanding of our world. But when just a few companies control lots of data, that can make it hard for anyone else to compete. And without competition, our markets don’t serve consumers well.
Artificial intelligence can help us make decisions faster and better, giving us more time to spend on the things that give our lives value. But when we rely on computers to make decisions, we face the risk that they might get things wrong. That a computer might learn to repeat the prejudices of the past – or that it might not have been trained to avoid breaking the law.
The benefits of regulation
So before people can embrace the possibilities of technology, they need to know that those risks are being dealt with. They need to trust technology – and the companies that deliver it – not to harm them.
Lately, for many people, that trust has been shaken. People have seen their data being stolen or misused; they’ve seen companies abusing their power in the market, at the expense of consumers.
And the right rules can help to fix that problem.
Every one of us here goes home, every night, to a home full of mortal danger. Our electrical wires could kill us in an instant, if we touched the wrong wire or plugged in a faulty product. Yet we hardly think of those risks. Because we have rules that we know will keep us safe.
And we can learn from that, when it comes to the digital world. We can get away from the idea that there’s some sort of conflict between tech optimists and pessimists, between those who welcome technology, and those who want it to be safe. We can learn that making technology safe is the best way – the only way – for it to be accepted.
The same rules online and offline
So the time is over when the digital world could escape the rules that apply to our lives offline. Because what happens online doesn’t stay online.
If someone stood on the street corner, outside this building, calling on people to join a terrorist group. If they sold pirate DVDs, or plotted to fix prices, or ran a business that didn’t respect the rights of its workers – well, then we’d expect the authorities to step in pretty fast. And there’s no reason why it should be different, just because the Internet’s involved.
It’s true that the digital world runs on innovation. And it’s true that without rules, you can do lots of new things.
But the innovation we need isn’t about getting round the rules. Innovation matters because it makes our lives better. So we can’t ask people to give up values like democracy, or privacy, or fairness, in the name of innovation. The innovation we need should protect those values – not undermine them.
Competition and innovation
And good rules can even help innovation thrive. Competition rules can make sure powerful companies don’t use their power to hold back innovation.
For many years, Google has been one of the great digital innovators. But we can’t put all our hopes for the future in the hands of one company. The real guarantee of an innovative future comes from keeping markets open so that anyone, big or small, can compete to produce the best ideas.
And no matter how much Google has done, helping us navigate the web or making the Android operating system open source, we can’t look the other way when it threatens to shut down competition. When it denies rivals the chance to strike deals to pre-install their apps on Android phones. Or when it takes away one of the benefits of open-source software – the fact that anyone can adapt and improve it.
Competition and data
And that’s not the only way that competition rules can help make sure technology serves people, not the other way round.
We can make sure mergers don’t harm competition, by putting the data you need to compete in the hands of just one company.
Of course, not every merger that involves a lot of data is bad news. When Apple bought the music recognition app Shazam, it got hold of data about people who use Apple’s rival streaming services. But we found that this data wasn’t that important – it wouldn’t really make it easier for Apple to pursue its rivals’ users.
And even when data is important, it might not be so special. When Microsoft bought LinkedIn, we wanted to know if Microsoft could use its exclusive access to LinkedIn’s data, to drive rivals out of the market. But that turned out not to be an issue – because those rivals had access to data from other sources.
We still need to keep an eye on these mergers – because if one company gets exclusive control of a really powerful, unique set of data, it could use that a way to shut down competition.
But that doesn’t mean we have to lose out on the insights we get from really big sets of data. Because sometimes, with data, size really does matter. Things you wouldn’t see from small datasets can leap into view when you have more data. And that can help to build products that work better for consumers.
But it doesn't take a large company to get that critical mass. There’s nothing to stop businesses getting together to pool their data into one large dataset that produces insights they can share. Just as long as they follow the data protection rules – and don’t hurt competition
Going beyond competition enforcement
So competition matters. It can help to make sure companies serve people better.
But on its own, that’s not enough to give people confidence that technology is safe. We also need rules to protect other fundamental values.
We need rules that protect our privacy, like the new EU rules on data protection. So it’s clear that our data belongs to us – and that we have the right to control what happens to it.
We need rules to make sure online platforms don’t become a way for terrorist networks to spread their vicious messages. So the European Commission has proposed rules to make platforms take down terrorist propaganda within an hour.
We need rules to make sure that cyberattacks, and dark ads with unknown backers, don’t undermine our democracy. So the Commission has put forward a set of proposals, to keep the next European Parliament elections safe from digital threats.
The thing is, technology isn’t just changing our democracy, or our markets, or the way we communicate. It’s changing all these things, and many more, at once. So we need to respond to those changes from many different angles.
We need to keep competition working. And we need to keep our rules up to date in every part of our lives, from taxation to privacy. We need to learn to stay safe in the digital world – just as we teach our children not to touch electric wires
And businesses also have to face their responsibility. That isn’t just an ethical duty; it’s the way to build the trust they need to survive.
Keeping up with changing technology
But for regulators, the job isn’t just to design and to enforce the right rules. It’s to have those rules in place at the right time.
It isn’t easy to know how the technologies on the horizon will affect people’s lives. But that doesn’t mean we can afford to play it safe. We can’t just sit back and wait, as the risks of those technologies start to affect people’s lives
Because that isn’t safe at all. There’s nothing safe, for consumers, about regulation that only steps in after harm is done. There’s nothing safe, for business, about letting problems happen, letting trust evaporate, before we take action.
So we need to be ready before those changes happen. That’s why the Commission is spending a lot of time right now, talking to experts in policy and technology, and thinking what a digital economy will mean for competition policy.
It’s also why I’m so glad to be here.
Because this is where change is happening. It’s where today’s explorers come to stand by the ocean, and look out on a world of possibilities.
But before that world arrives, we need to think about what it means. About the effect it will have on people’s lives; and about the rules we need, to make sure they can live those lives securely and happily.
If we can do that, the rewards will be enormous. We’ll be able to put trust in digital technology to make our lives better, and welcome it deep into our everyday lives.
The ideas you’re mapping out right now can take us on a great new adventure. We just have to remember to take everyone along with us.