EU competition commissioner: Facebook breakup would be 'last resort'

Pulling apart the social network could keep the EU busy in court for a decade, says Margrethe Vestager.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
2 min read

EU Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager takes a different view than some on busting up Facebook.

Emmanuel Dunand/Getty Images

Should Facebook be broken up? In recent weeks, some politicians in the US and even one of Facebook's co-founders have expressed strong opinions that the world's largest social network has grown too powerful, and that it should be split off into its component parts.

But the EU, typically more heavy-handed than the US when it comes to regulating Silicon Valley tech companies, has a different take.

"For us it would be a remedy of the very last resort," EU Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager said at the VivaTech conference in Paris on Friday. "It would keep us busy in court for even a decade."

It could come as a surprise to some that the EU is taking a less forceful view than key players in the US on a potential breakup of Facebook, given the bloc's penchant for regulation. Vestager in particular has a reputation for coming down hard on US tech giants, thanks to the record-breaking fines she's handed out to Amazon and Google. In her role as commissioner, she's always maintained that keeping the power of large tech companies in check is the best way of allowing innovation to flourish and ensuring consumer choice.

"For a giant it's not necessarily a good thing that innovation happens -- they're big, they're comfortable," she said. "This is why we see that even illegal behavior happens to stifle innovation." As an example she pointed to the fine handed down to Google last year -- the largest the EU has ever issued -- for abusing its Android dominance.

The EU's competition commission issued Facebook a $122 million fine in 2017 for providing it with misleading information in the wake of the social network's 2014 acquisition of WhatsApp. But the acquisition itself didn't fall foul of EU competition rules. Vestager doesn't seem to see Facebook's monopoly as a roadblock to innovation, but the company's stranglehold over data is a separate matter.

Rather than attempting to break up the company, she said, it would "be much more direct and powerful to say we need access to data." Having access to data is the difference for smaller and younger tech companies in being able to make a success of themselves in the market, she added. "What we would be looking for is ways to help innovation happen."

Over the past six months, Facebook has shown much greater willingness to subject itself to regulation within the US, following a series of privacy mishaps. Earlier this month the company's COO,  Sheryl Sandberg met with officials in Washington to discuss potential oversight. But speaking in an interview with CNBC on Friday, Sandberg said she didn't believe breaking up Facebook was the way to go.

The calls to break up the company weren't totally unfair, she said, but such an act wouldn't solve the underlying problems people are concerned about.