Keynote speech by EVP Vestager at the BEUC conference on consumer protection in the digital age, Brussels 27 September 2022.
Keynote speech given by EVP Vestager at the BEUC conference on consumer protection in the digital age, Brussels 27 September 2022.
"Check against delivery"
"Intelligent policies for crisis and transition"
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.
It's my pleasure to be here today. I'd like to thank BEUC for organising this conference, which addresses very important and timely issues.
As Executive Vice-President and member of the College, I would also like to thank you for the feedback and support you have been providing to the Commission on so many legislative files. You are often our reality check, because you bring in a perspective that is often not captured by any other stakeholders.
Finally, and importantly, I thank you as a European consumer. For 60 years your tireless advocacy on behalf of all consumers has been making a real difference in our lives.
Cost of living crisis
Today, as consumers we need you more than ever. Price increases are hitting hard across Europe. Both households and businesses. Energy is playing a big part - small businesses and consumers are already feeling the crunch. And as the weather gets colder, high heating costs will take their toll, especially on the most vulnerable.
It's not just energy. Price increases are eroding purchasing power in other markets too. Especially for food and other essential goods. A combination of factors has created price pressures linked to cost factors and disruptions - some caused by the pandemic response, some by weather conditions, and some by geopolitics.
Whatever the cause, we must act urgently to protect purchasing power by ensuring that markets continue functioning in spite of these challenges. This is the Commission's highest priority right now.
An efficient Single Market benefits consumers
At the same time, our crisis response cannot and will not come at the expense of long-term planning. With these 60 years of experience at our backs, we know well the recipe for best protecting consumers' interest: well-functioning competitive markets.
Market pressure is what keeps prices close to cost and quality high. Market pressure is what ensures companies always have an incentive to deliver better customer service. And it is what drives companies to innovate and bring to consumers exciting new products. Put another way: the cost of non-competition is high. Because when you look across all industries, you can see our work saves consumers several billion euros each year.
At the Commission, we always have this logic in mind, when we take enforcement actions in antitrust and when we review mergers and acquisitions. For example, in a recent case our teams carried out unannounced inspections of companies active in the online ordering and food delivery markets, to look into possible anticompetitive market sharing practices. Also, last year, we opened an investigation into possible anticompetitive practices by Mondelez in the market for biscuits, chocolate and coffee. And we are working on more cases in the food supply chain, which will benefit Europe's consumers and help protect their purchasing power.
This logic also motivated our thinking in responding to both the pandemic and the crisis caused by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. We designed our State aid temporary frameworks in order to minimise distortions to the Single Market, while still making sure support could flow where it was needed. And that is the logic we will continue to employ for all crisis measures needed in these turbulent times.
Consumer protection in the digital age
Another big challenge we face in consumer protection is making sure the digital transition works for people. We are long past the point where digital is a ‘sector' of the economy. Today, digital is integrated in every sector of the economy.
In this context, consumers cannot tolerate a situation in which a handful of large digital platforms control our access to the internet. Consumer protection is always a case of the many against the few. But if we allow digital spaces to be dominated in this way, the good work we have achieved for Europe's consumers could come under threat.
As you know, we have been active on cases against large digital platforms for years, using our traditional antitrust enforcement tools. But new times call for new measures, and that is why we moved to pass the Digital Markets Act - an ex ante instrument that complements our existing tools in the fight to ensure a level playing field online. By forbidding practices like harmful forms of self-preferencing, we are giving online traders more leeway to compete on these platforms. Of course, the next phase is implementation, and that is where our teams are turning their attention now. We will keep you posted, but for now let me just say that we want the implementation phase of the DMA to be as transparent as possible. We would be keen to hear third party views on compliance solutions proposed by large digital platforms, and in this respect, we are thinking about the most efficient way to do so as early as possible in the process, including by organising dedicated technical workshops.
The DMA goes hand in hand with traditional antitrust enforcement, but it also goes hand in hand with another important initiative we have proposed, the Digital Services Act, which was formally adopted this month. The DSA is the most far-reaching digital consumer protection law the world has ever seen. It protects consumers from illegal content, it creates more transparency in how algorithms work behind the curtain, when it comes to content removal and ad targeting. It has been called a ‘gold-standard' for regulation worldwide. With the right dialogue and cooperation, this kind of impact is certainly possible.
Finally, we have started a fitness check of EU consumer protection legislation to see if more needs to be done to make sure the levels of protection are the same online as they are offline.
The Artificial Intelligence Act
But something tells me that when we look back on this phase of history, the single most important thing we will have done - or not have done - is to deal with Artificial Intelligence. To be clear, the Commission is certainly not opposing Artificial Intelligence. Deploying AI in industrial and consumer applications promises huge benefits for consumers, in all kinds of ways. First, by making it easier for consumers' choices to be taken into account. By tailoring products and services to individual needs and wants.
Moreover, Europe's consumers stand to gain through industrial deployments of Artificial Intelligence. AI is our secret weapon in the fight against climate change. It promises a radical improvement in efficiency across the board - from manufacturing to traffic management to agriculture. All of that will allow us to achieve our climate goals while keeping the EU on a growth path.
Realising those gains means being proactive about the obstacles these technologies face. None of us wants to see a world in which technology undermines our values, or is deployed in a way that breaches our freedoms as European citizens. Equally, if we do not act now to proactively address these concerns, we are sure to face resistance to AI down the road. We will face the risk of fragmentation, creating uncertainty and exposing consumers to the dangers of jurisdictional loopholes.
That is why the AI Act is so important. Like GDPR, it is another ‘first of its kind'. By moving early to set the ground rules for how AI can be used, in particular for ‘high-risk' applications, we have a window of opportunity. We can shape how applications are being developed in real time. And because of the weight and strength of our Single Market, it is very likely that this will set another ‘gold standard' internationally. Tomorrow, we complement the AI Act with updated liability rules for the digital age. These include a specific proposal on liability of AI systems. Our aim is to make it easier for consumers to claim compensation for damages caused by such systems.
I know BEUC has been following developments on AI closely, and the Commission appreciates your engagement. For our part, we will continue to work together with the Parliament and the Council to ensure the final texts live up to the ambitions of our proposals.
I am sure that today's discussions will prove fruitful in that respect.
Before I finish, I would like to say a word on something we are cooking in DG Competition. As defenders of free and fair markets, our decisions have a direct impact on our lives, as you know very well. After all, behind these ‘markets' are people - consumers, families, citizens. That is why we have decided to organise a conference on ‘Making Markets Work for People', to take place here in Brussels on 27 October. It will feature top speakers from policy, the academic world and from business and civil society. I think it very much aligns with the messaging you have been promoting so well.
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