Welcome to EURACTIV’s Digital Brief, your weekly update on all things digital in the EU. You can subscribe to the newsletter here. You are also welcome to contact me for signals and follow me on Twitter.
“On Artificial Intelligence, trust is a must, not a nice to have. With these landmark rules, the EU is spearheading the development of new global norms to make sure AI can be trusted.”
– Margrethe Vestager, Executive Vice President of the European Commission for A Europe Fit for the Digital Age
Story of the week: the European Commission has launched its long-awaited proposal to regulate Artificial Intelligence. The Commission has followed a risk-based approach, increasing regulations and restrictions with the level of risk associated with certain applications, and outright banning those AI uses that are incompatible with EU values. The proposed legal framework has been welcomed by digital companies but has raised concerns around consumer protection and civil rights.
Don’t miss: European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Mariya Gabriel participated in a closed-door webinar with the CEOs of 35 European unicorns. The leading tech companies put forth eight initiatives, the most significant of which is a Sovereign EU Tech Fund worth 100 bn. The proposal comes at a time when the Commission has already confirmed the seven-years budget for its next innovation programme Horizon Europe, which will be very hard to change at this stage. However, the Commissioner has not ruled out any possibility, and the proposal seemed to have attracted attention from other European capitals.
Also this week: Commission called to regulate EU-US data exchanges; Breton announces European Media Freedom Act proposal; anti-trust scrutiny increases on app stores in the US; Europe seeks India’s partnership for ‘democratic’ 5G; Russia leaves the International Space Station; and much more…
The European Commission’s proposal is primarily intended to build trust and excellence in Artificial Intelligence. As this is the first-ever attempt to regulate AI, Europe might be able to shape the debate at the global level and set international standards on the matter.
The risk-based approach was generally well received by the business world although, looking ahead, DigitalEurope warned of the need to ‘avoid the fragmented and bumpy implementation that we saw with the GDPR.’ Civil rights and consumer organisations seem more sceptical about the protection the new regulation would provide, as they consider them too limiting and relying on companies’ self-assessment of the risks.
The proposal has also seen protests in the European Parliament for the exceptions it allows in the use of Biometric Identification in public spaces. According to the Greens/EFA group, these special cases might leave the door open for police abuse and mass surveillance. Today (23 April), the European Data Protection Supervisor insisted on a ban on biometric identification in public spaces. Read more.
EU-US data exchange. It has been a busy week for the Civil Liberties Committee (LIBE) of the European Parliament. Following a recent ruling of the European Court of Justice, the committee approved by a large majority on Tuesday (20 April) a draft report urging the Commission to set clear guidelines to regulate the secure transmission of EU data to the United States.
UK data adequacy. The European Data Protection Board (EDPB) has issued two opinions this week concerning the adequacy of the Commission draft implementing decision on the protection of personal data in the United Kingdom. The opinions have largely recognised the adequacy of UK data protection standards. Although not binding, the EDPB’s opinions carry a great deal of weight in certifying that third countries are ensuring a GDPR-comparable level of protection to EU data.
Spare the kids. TikTok is facing a new lawsuit in the UK over children’s data protection. The legal challenge was launched by Anne Longfield, a children campaigner and former Children’s Commissioner for England, according to whom the app is breaching EU and UK data protection laws. Longfield’s legal claim considers that TikTok is taking children’s data without the necessary transparency and consent. TikTok’s spokesperson has rejected these accusations, stating that the app has ‘robust policies, processes and technologies in place to help protect all users, and our teenage users in particular’. Earlier this week, thirty consumer and child protection associations have also tried to dissuade Mark Zuckerberg from his plan to launch a version of Instagram for under 13 children/
Think about the media. Last week EURACTIV launched its new Digital & Media hub, expanding its thematic offer to better cover the media sector, in particular looking at how technological and political developments influence the media landscape across Europe and beyond. This comes at a difficult time for journalism in Europe. In its yearly World Press Freedom Index, Reports Without Borders highlighted the deteriorating conditions of the media in Central-Eastern Europe, pointing at Hungary as somewhat of a trendsetter in restricting media independence in neighbouring Czechia, Poland, and Slovenia. In spite of international pressure, Bulgaria remains steadily at the bottom of media freedom in Europe.
European Media Freedom Act. In this context, the EU is increasing its effort to support the media market. Internal Market Commissioner Breton announced on Monday (19 April) that the Commission will propose a European Media Freedom Act, which will build on the existing Audiovisual Media Service Directive (AVMSD). Given the mentioned political context, the proposal is expected to be highly controversial and its approval could take several years, just like it was the case for the AVMSD.
App-makers vs App stores. Things could have hardly gone worst for Apple and Google in the judiciary hearing on antitrust that took place in the US Senate last Wednesday (21 April). App-makers did not hold back in expressing their grievances against Google and Apple, as representatives from Spotify, Match and Tile accused the tech giants of distorting the competition in their respective app stores. In June last year, the European Commission launched a formal investigation based on Spotify’s accusations that the Apple Store was engaged in anti-competitive practices. According to Reuters, the results of the investigations might be published in the following weeks and might involve charges for Apple.
Terrorist content removal. On Tuesday (20 April), the European Parliament’s LIBE committee endorsed with a high majority of votes a draft recommendation that would provide competent national authorities with the capacity to demand online platforms to remove content that can be ascribed to terrorist activities. This is the result of an inter-institutional negotiation with the Council that adopted this position on 16 March 2021. The proposed regulation will now need to go through the next plenary session (i.e. 26-29 April plenary session).
Distaste for FloC. Back in January, Google announced it was going to change the way it tracks users through the Federated Learning of Cohorts (FloC). Essentially, FloC profiles users without third-party cookies by labelling them in interested-based groups rather than tracking them individually. According to Google, this system is a ‘privacy sandbox’, as it would better respect individual privacy while not significantly damaging advertising revenues. Meanwhile, many internet companies have opposed the new tracking system, with WordPress proposing on Sunday (18 April) it will ‘ treat FloC as a security concern’.
Facebook to copycat Clubhouse. Speaking to journalist Casey Newton on Monday (19 April), Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook will be launching new audio features expected to resemble the audio chats that characterised Clubhouse. Clubhouse is an invite-only app for audio chatting that has scored huge gains during the pandemic thanks to numerous VIP endorsements (including Oprah and Elon Musk to name a few). The app has steadily raised additional funding, reaching a total value of $4 billion according to this week’s reports.
Cyber-conflicts. The Biden administration announced on Tuesday (20 April) the launch of a 100-day plan to enhance and modernise the cybersecurity defences of the nation’s electricity infrastructure. In the words of Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm, “the United States faces a well-documented and increasing cyber threat from malicious actors seeking to disrupt the electricity Americans rely on to power our homes and businesses”. On the same day, cybersecurity firm Mandiant accused China of sponsoring an espionage operation that used Pulse Secure, a widely used VPN. Since the beginning of the year, this is reportedly the third hacking offensive from China and Russia against US agencies and firms.
(De)crypto. Signal’s CEO Moxie Marlinspike has allegedly unveiled in a blog post several vulnerabilities of Cellebrite, an Israeli surveillance firm used to decode encrypted-messaging systems (such as Signal). Cellebrite is one of the most common hacking tools, as it is capable of seizing mobile data bypassing existing passcodes. According to Marlinspike, the app is being employed by authoritarian regimes around the world, implicitly referring to a data leak from 2017 that suggested the tool was used by governments in Russia, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey. Only a few months ago Cellebrite had announced they had expanded their offer to also read files from Signal. Thus, the attack from Signal is part of a broader battle between encryption-based messaging and decryption systems.
Democratic 5G. On Monday (19 April), Executive Vice-President for Digital Margrethe Vestager revealed the Commission’s intention to collaborate with India in developing global standards in terms of security and transparency for 5G technology, Bloomberg reported. The move was justified on the need to collaborate with ‘democratic partners’ to establish the standards for the 5G rollout, implying the EU is attempting to contain ‘authoritarian rivals’. Meanwhile, Huawei decided to challenge the Swedish 5G ban in court, just like it challenged the legality of similar decisions from Poland and Romania back in November.
No health impact. The French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (ANSES) has published a new report confirming “the absence of any new proven health impact” which “supports the Government’s choices on the launch of 5G”. France remains a key country for the 5G rollout in Europe.
Outer space picks up the pace. Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, has announced this week its intention to leave the International Space Station (ISS) by 2025 in order to set up its own facility. The ISS has been a symbol of rapprochement following the end of the Cold War, it is therefore meaningful that the decision comes at a time when Russia’s relations with the West are at their lowest point since the Donbas war. The move is not only symbolic though, as the Kremlin has recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the China National Space Administration (CNSA) on lunar research, confirming the trend that Western sanctions are more and more pushing Moscow closer to Beijing.
SpaceX takes off. NASA has chosen SpaceX to build its next moon-bound spacecraft. The $2.9 billion contract is part of the Artemis program, which is aiming to send humans by 2024. The decision is an important victory for Elon Mask’s company, which has bitten Blue Origin and Dynetics, two companies that were involved in the Artemis programme since the beginning. It is also a personal victory of Tesla’s founder over Jeff Bezos, who recently announced he will step down as CEO of Amazon in the third quarter of 2021 specifically to focus on other initiatives such as Blue Origin. Meanwhile, NASA also continues to score results in its mission on Mars, as it succeeded in launching the Ingenuity helicopter in a historic first flight on the red planet.
More to come. The militarisation (and commercialisation) of space is no longer limited to Sci-Fi movies, it is a new technological frontier that might redefine military capabilities and financial fortunes in the near future. Expect more coverage on this going forward.
What else I’m reading this week:
- A new report from the Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) provides recommendations to address the privacy risks of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies.
- The European Centre for International Political Economy has published a paper this week reviewing the DSA. The main critiques concern the ambiguity in the definition of illegal content and the risk that the DSA might create new barriers for smaller sellers.
- Vodafone has announced the launch of the first dedicated research and development facility for OpenRAN in the UK, with the ambition to put the UK at the centre of the development of this game-changing technology.