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Why Margrethe Vestager is Silicon Valley's foremost antagonist


She's been called the most powerful regulator in Europe. Margrethe Vestager is Silicon Valley's biggest antagonist. And she has her hands full these days, investigating everything from Twitter and Elon Musk to the Metaverse. NPR's Bobby Allyn sat down with her in her office in Copenhagen.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: The tax lady who really hates the U.S. That's how former President Trump once described Margrethe Vestager. She says she agrees with the first part of that statement.

MARGRETHE VESTAGER: Well, actually, I kind of like the tax lady because, you know, tax fairness is something I really, really, really take to heart.

ALLYN: Fairness is a word Vestager throws around quite a bit when you talk to her about her job as an executive vice president of the European Commission. A major part of her role is making sure no one tech company gets too powerful in Europe. And she's done quite a lot. Eight pending legal actions against Silicon Valley giants, multibillion-dollar fines against those companies, like Apple and Google, spearheading two tech laws that experts say could rewrite the rules of the internet - those are the big ways she's fighting the tech industry. She notes some small ways, too. She tells her family, if I see an Amazon box around the house, I'm not taking it to the recycling bin.

VESTAGER: I will take out the cardboard, but not with that logo on it.

ALLYN: The daughter of two Lutheran pastors on the Danish coast, Vestager doesn't seem like a politician when you meet her. She greeted me in her office wearing running shoes. She offered me a big smile and a warm cup of coffee. When it comes to the tech sector, she harkens back to her roots and talks in biblical terms.

VESTAGER: Technology may be new, but the behavior is as old as Adam and Eve, because what we see here is still a question of power or greed.

ALLYN: And reigning in power and greed is the aim of the two pieces of landmark tech regulation she helped shape, the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act. The laws threaten even more huge fines against large tech companies for things like not removing hate speech and squashing competition. Too often, she says, Meta, Google, Apple, Amazon have abused their power to get ahead. She's often asking tech executives this question.

VESTAGER: Why do you find that it is necessary to take a shortcut, bend the corners, for us to get the suspicion that you're doing something illegal?

ALLYN: Apple, for one, says it works to comply with EU laws. And CEO Tim Cook once called a Vestager fine, quote, "total political crap." Of course, that's not how she sees it. Fines are one thing. But Vestager says the EU's crackdown also packs a reputational punch.

VESTAGER: Because it means a lot as to how you're seen by, of course, the financial market, but also how you're seen by employees, how you're seen by customers.

ALLYN: Even if the U.S. had its own version of Vestager, it would be trickier to regulate what people post on the platforms. For example, the First Amendment protects speech even if it's offensive, whereas hate speech is illegal in most EU countries.

VESTAGER: I think it's fair enough to say that we want to protect minorities from hate speech. In Germany, I think it's illegal to deny the Holocaust. I think that's absolutely fair enough. These are democratically legitimate decisions.

ALLYN: In the U.S., what's allowed on, say, Twitter is decided by, well, Twitter. And that's a company that's been on Vestager's mind a lot lately. Since Elon Musk took over the social network, promising to make it a greater place for free speech, Vestager has been closely following along. She has a message for Musk as he revamps the rules of the platform.

VESTAGER: If you offer your services in Europe, there is a European rulebook. And you should live by it. Otherwise, we have the penalties. We have the fines. We have all the assessments and all the decisions that will then come to haunt you.

ALLYN: She's called some of the things Musk has proposed fundamentally flawed. But Musk has promised to abide by European rules.

Bobby Allyn, NPR News, Copenhagen.

(SOUNDBITE OF COUCH'S "NAH DRAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.