Data Ethics event on Data as Power, Copenhagen, 9 September 2016

"Check against delivery"


Ladies and gentlemen

I'm very glad to have the chance to talk with you about how we can deal with the power that data can give.

That’s an important question, precisely because we have so much to gain from new ways of working with data.

Not all of these benefits are especially dramatic. When we visit an online bookstore, and get a recommendation that's exactly right for us, then in a small way, that can make our lives better.

But the stakes are even greater behind the scenes. That’s where you find jet engine makers that use data from sensors in their engines to help airlines use fuel more efficiently. That helps the airlines to cut costs. And it also helps to protect our environment.

You also find researchers who want to use data about our health to help us get earlier, better treatment – and that includes treatments that are designed for us as individuals.


Challenges of data use

So the challenge for public authorities is to make sure these benefits don't come at the expense of individual rights.

Take personal data, for example. People have become used to sharing their data with many different companies.

Consumers use search engines that produce incredibly accurate results. Social networks let people keep in touch with friends, wherever they are in the world.

And they don't pay a single penny for those services. Instead, they pay with their data.

That doesn't have to be a problem, as long as people are happy that the data they share is a fair price to pay for the services they get in return. Personal data has become a valuable commodity.

But it can only be sustainable if people trust the companies that collect their data when it comes to the way that they use it.

Privacy rules

And that trust is not yet there.

There was recently a survey which found that less than a quarter of Europeans trust online businesses to protect their personal information. 81% of us feel that we don't have complete control over our personal data online.

If we want to benefit fully from what data has to offer, then that needs to change. And I think the new rules on data protection, which the EU adopted earlier this year, are a crucial step forward.

The new General Data Protection Regulation will give us better control of our personal data. It will give us the right to more information on how our data is used. And if we move from one provider to another, we'll have the right to take our personal data with us.

The rules will also help make sure companies can work with big data without harming our privacy. They will have to think from the very start about how to protect people's privacy, for example by keeping data encrypted, or by anonymising data and making sure it can't be traced back to us.

So rules like these help to protect our personal data.

But the market can have a role as well.

Because when you have markets that are competitive, every little thing that makes your service more appealing to consumers can help you to compete. And that includes better protection for personal data.

So as competition enforcers, we need to ask ourselves whether we can help solve the problem of trust, by making markets more competitive.

Some national competition authorities are already looking into that. The German authority is concerned that Facebook may have forced its users to accept privacy terms that aren't in line with the data protection rules.

But as our German colleagues rightly point out, even if Facebook has broken those rules, that doesn't automatically mean that it has also broken the competition rules as well.

So competition is important. It keeps the pressure on companies to give people what they want. And that includes security and privacy.

But we can't expect competition enforcement to solve all our privacy problems. Our first line of defence will always be rules that are designed specifically to guarantee our privacy. Rules like the new data protection regulation.

Fair competition: data as an asset

But privacy isn't the only issue with data.

If data can help you compete, by improving your services and cutting costs, then having the right set of data could make it almost impossible for anyone else to keep up. So we need to be sure that companies which control that sort of data don't use it to stop others from competing.

That's a question that we take very seriously.

But it turns out that even if you hold a lot of data, that doesn't necessarily mean you have the power to stop others from competing. What matters isn't just the amount of data. It's whether you can really use it to drive your rivals out of the market.

Back in 2008, the Commission looked at Google’s purchase of DoubleClick, which provided online advertising. One benefit for Google was that it got hold of DoubleClick’s advertising data. But even though that data might have been valuable, it certainly wasn't unique. Other companies had similar data, or they could buy it in. So combining Google’s data with DoubleClick’s didn't actually stop anyone else from competing.

So the problem for competition isn't just that one company holds a lot of data. The problem comes if that data really is unique, and can't be duplicated by anyone else. But really unique data might not be that common.

That doesn't mean the amount or type of data that a company controls can never create a problem. In 2014, the French competition authority ordered GDF Suez, a French energy supplier, to share a rather traditional type of data - part of its customer list - with its rivals. That list was special because it related to regulated tariffs, which only GDF Suez could legally offer. And the French competition authority was concerned that GDF Suez might have misused that list, which it had because of its monopoly, to sell energy in the part of the market that was open to competition.

So it's true that we shouldn't be suspicious of every company which holds a valuable set of data. But we do need to keep a close eye on whether companies control unique data, which no one else can get hold of, and can use it to shut their rivals out of the market. That could mean, for example, data that's been collected through a monopoly.


These new ways of using data have enormous potential. And the competition rules shouldn’t get in the way of that.

But we do have to make sure that data isn't used in a way that hurts consumers.

Competition rules can't solve every problem on their own. But they can make an important contribution to keeping digital markets level and open. So that consumers get innovative products at the right prices. And so that digital entrepreneurs, however big or small, have a fair shot at success.

And if we do find that companies are undermining competition, we won't hesitate to take action.

Thank you.