Digital Brief: Cancel Culture

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“It is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.”

– A Letter on Justice and Open Debate signed by 150 writers and academics, Harper’s, July 7 2020.


Cancel Culture. This week, 150 prominent writers and academics including Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker, Margaret Atwood, Francis Fukuyama, Salman Rushdie, and J.K Rowling, have written an open letter calling for free speech to be preserved online amid an ongoing trend towards ‘cancel culture.’ Could this have any influence on the future direction of policy?


*Also this week*

UK-US data flows, EU-China data flows, ePrivacy, Counterfeit goods in Digital Services Act Democracy Action Plan, Google-Fitbit merger, UK biometrics commissioner, Northern Ireland biometrics consultation, Polish 5G report, and more…. 



The letter, published in Harper’s Bazar this week, states that “the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted,” in light of several recent high-profile online retributions, including against J.K Rowling herself for comments that were accused of being transphobic.

“The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away,” the letter says.

The term ‘cancel culture’ refers to the situation when individuals, normally online, provoke harsh public reproval for comments deemed to be offensive or insulting.

Some believe that this method of lambasting has its merits in holding those in privileged positions to account for misdemeanors or aspersions. The 150 signatories believe that it’s a disproportionate and frenzied mob-like encroachment of an individual’s right to freedom of expression.

However, the letter appears to conflate, in a rather negligent way, hate speech with open debate – failing to draw the parameters where liberal expression treads into vitriolic bigotry or discrimination.

Here in the EU, we have the Digital Services Act to be presented in December, which the Commission has said will address the issue of hate speech online.

In a recent evaluation of the EU’s code on countering illegal hate speech online, the Commission applauded efforts by some of the world’s largest tech platforms in stifling the spread of illegal content online.

However, the evaluation did not examine the specific timeframes within which such ‘illegal content’ was removed – an important area considering recent developments in France, where the Constitutional Council rejected large parts of a draft law which would have obliged social media giants to remove hateful content within 24 hours.

For his part, Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders stated at the time that hate speech would be curtailed in the EU as part of the upcoming Digital Services Act.

“The forthcoming Digital Services Act will make a difference. It will create a European framework for digital services, and complement existing EU actions to curb illegal hate speech online,” a statement from Reynders read.

Meanwhile, Germany, which has recently taken up its seat as the Presidency of the EU Council, has recently clamped down on hate speech with additional measures outlined in the Network Implementation Act (NetzDG). These now include the obligation for social networks to not only delete potentially criminal content but also report it to the Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA).

Earlier this week, however, German Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht took an ambiguous line with regards to balancing freedom of expression with the necessity of stifling online hate speech.

“It would be appalling if freedom of expression was no longer possible because people were muzzled, not being able to express their opinion. That would be an unacceptable state of affairs,” she told a hearing of the European Parliament’s Internal Market committee on Monday (6 July). “This is one of the absolutely essential foundations of our society.”

“The German rules were proposed so that we will not accept other rules being applied on the internet as in the real world. If certain acts such as hate speech, are punishable in the real world, they should be digitally as well. So this is the approach that I’m putting forward. It shouldn’t be the case that anything goes on the internet.”

Nonetheless, the German leadership of the Digital Services Act (in terms of the country’s Presidency of the EU at least), is likely to be limited to a series of ‘orientation debates’ they will hold leading up to the presentation of the Commission’s proposal in December. Watch this space for more.



Consultations kick-off. The European Commission has launched its public consultation on the governance of common European data spaces, as part of the new data strategy.

Schrems II. The much-anticipated Facebook Ireland Vs Schrems case goes ahead next Thursday (16 July). At stake is whether Standard Contractual Clauses (SCCs) are a legitimate way of transferring data to legal regimes outside of the EU while respecting EU data protection law, potentially in addition to the validity of the EU-US data transfer agreement, the Privacy Shield. Read a short overview here.

ePrivacy. The German EU Presidency is set to take the reins of the divisive ePrivacy negotiations, which has been held up by member states for more than three years.

Obstacles that have arisen over recent years include issues over device tracking, data retention for law enforcement purposes, and cookie regulation.

document was recently circulated by the German Presidency to national delegations on Monday (6 July), detailing how the Germans hope to agree on a common negotiating position between all member states.

EU-China data flows. The EU’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said on Tuesday (7 July) that personal exchanges of data between the EU and China may only take place in full compliance with the GDPR. There have recently been concerns, highlighted by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, that there could be privacy issues associated with the Chinese video-sharing platform TikTok.

UK-US data access agreement. Sir Brian Leveson will be responsible for providing independent oversight of the UK’s use of the new UK-US Data Access Agreement when it comes into use later this year, the government announced on Monday (6 July).


Artificial Intelligence

UK Biometrics Commissioner. Paul Wiles, the UK’s Biometrics Commissioner, will be staying on in his role until the end of the year, in anticipation of a replacement for his post. He had been due to step down in June. A statement from Wiles last week highlighted certain nefarious uses of AI that had been put into place during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The technology changes can be used to enshrine liberty and protect our private life but alternatively can be used for mass surveillance and the subjugation of the individual to state power. Globally we have seen both these possibilities during the pandemic,” he said.

Biometric data retention in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland’s Justice Minister Naomi Long has launched a public consultation on proposals to further amend the law relating to the retention of DNA and fingerprints in the country. “DNA and fingerprints play a valuable role in the detection and investigation of crime. These new proposals amend and supplement existing legislation which, when commenced, will provide the future statutory framework for the retention of biometric data in Northern Ireland,” she said.

EU Agency for Artificial Intelligence. Speaking to Internal Market MEPs on Monday, Germany’s Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht suggested that she could be open to the idea of establishing an EU agency for Artificial Intelligence. She noted how a EU agency for AI with enforcement capacities “would certainly be a suggestion worth thinking about.”



Altmaier against monopolies. A “well-regulated” platform economy should allow for small and medium-sized enterprises to compete fairly and should not lead to the formation of “international monopolies”, German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier said on Tuesday (7 July).

His comments come as the European Commission is mulling over feedback from a series of public consultations on how the future platform economy could be regulated.

Facebook civil rights. An audit of Facebook’s policies has concluded that certain “vexing and heartbreaking decisions Facebook has made…represent significant setbacks for civil rights.”

The report adds that “Facebook’s decisions in May of 2020 to let stand on three posts by President Trump, have caused considerable alarm for the Auditors and the civil rights community.” Read more here.

Facebook oversight board. Meanwhile, Facebook have announced that their oversight board, which will take decisions on what content should be allowed or removed online, will not be operational until Autumn. For take on the European members of the board, see my short thread here.

TikTok joins EDiMA. Chinese videosharing platform TikTok has joined the European digital lobby group, EDiMA, which also counts giants such as Facebook and Google as members. “EDiMA’s members take our responsibility seriously and engage constructively with the EU institutions. TikTok is taking a similarly proactive approach and will make a very welcome addition to our membership,” Siada El Ramly, EDiMA Director-General said.

Twitter subscription platform. A recent job advertisement has (perhaps inadvertently) revealed that the company is considering launching a subscription platform.

Hong Kong data. Facebook, Google, and Twitter have suspended processing government requests for user data in Hong Kong, after China’s rubberstamping of a new national security law for the region, Reuters reports.



Intellectual Property Ruling. Today (9 July), the European Court of Justice ruled that platforms (in this case YouTube), when EU intellectual property right law is breached, are required only to provide the postal address of the offender to the complainant, and not necessarily the email address, IP address or telephone number.



More consultations. The Commission is looking for feedback on its review of the Directive on security of network and information systems (NIS Directive), which is due to be presented by the executive before the end of the year.

Slovenian Priorities. Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša said on Wednesday how the country has already put forward two priorities as part of its role in the so-called trio presidency of the Council of the European Union, which includes preparing for a new public health crisis in addition to building up the bloc’s cybersecurity capacities.

ENISA Cybersecurity Certification. ENISA, the EU’s cybersecurity agency, has published its ‘Common Criteria based European candidate cybersecurity certification scheme,’ which examines the cybersecurity certification of ICT products.


Digital Services Act

September Vote. Rapporteur of the Internal Market’s report on the Digital Services Act, the S&D’s Alex Agius Saliba, said earlier this week that he is hopeful a committee vote on the plans can happen in September. You can find the amendments and draft compromise amendments here (item 9).

Counterfeit goods crackdown. A crackdown on the sale of counterfeit and illegal goods across online platforms is likely to feature in the European Commission’s upcoming Digital Services Act plans, the EU’s Vice-President for Digital Affairs, Margrethe Vestager has said.

Interoperability calls. On Monday (6 July), a coalition of rights representatives and industry associations have written to Vestager, highlighting their wish for ex-ante ​interoperability requirements to feature as part of the DSA.


Online abuse

Online abuse investigations. 50 investigations into online child abuse have been launched across Italy, after a recent probe by the Italian State Police of Turin and  Europol revealed a network of incriminating communications across a ‘popular instant messaging application.’



Slovenian Mandatory app. Coronavirus contact tracing applications should be made mandatory as a means of helping the European Union transition out of the public health crisis and open up its borders, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša said on Wednesday (8 July).

In May, a joint agreement between the European Commission and member states noted how coronavirus contact tracing applications in the EU must be ‘voluntary.’

Slovenia’s government has recently introduced a legislative package aimed at tackling the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, which includes compulsory use of a contact tracing application for those who have tested positive for the virus or those in quarantine. The plan has met with opposition criticism of ‘slowly introducing dictatorship’.

Belgian app. Karine Moykens, secretary-general of Belgium’s Department of Welfare and Public Health has confirmed that the country will launch its coronavirus contact tracing app in September, The Brussels Times reports.

Irish app success. Within hours of being launched, Ireland’s coronavirus contact-tracing app was downloaded 500,000 times.

Germany app. One of the self-professed success stories in Europe’s coronavirus contact-tracing app landscape so far has been the German model, which has been available since mid-June. The software has been downloaded by approximately 15 million users so far, but there is little data as yet on its efficacy. In a potential bid to boost tourism to Germany from the UK, the German embassy in London announced that their ‘Corona Warn-App’ would also be available to download from the UK.



Google-Fitbit. Google had a “state of play” meeting with EU officials overseeing the Fitbit merger case, MLex reports.

Meanwhile, Vice-President Vestager today responded to a question from S&D MEP Carmen Avram, in which the latter pressed the Commission on how it would analyse the hordes of data that Google could amass should the acquisition go ahead. “In the Google/Fitbit transaction, the Commission will make use of its investigative powers to carry out an assessment of the transaction on all relevant markets,” Vestager responded, adding that it will also consider the relevance of the GDPR and ePrivacy directive in relation to the deal. A decision is due to be taken by the executive by 20 July.



Huawei. Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei has said it is remaining patient in light of media reports that the UK government is charting a gradual phase-out of its equipment in 5G network infrastructure, which could lead to a blanket ban. EURACTIV reported on this possibility in May.

On Monday, meanwhile, the Director-General of France’s National Cybersecurity Agency told Les Echos that while Huawei would be subject to certain standards, the company would not face an outright ban in France. Read more here.

Nokia layoffs in France. French Minister for Industry, Agnès Pannier-Runacher has called Nokia’s plans to layoff 1,233 workers in the country ‘unacceptable.’

Polish 5G report. In an attempt to counter some of the fictitious claims surrounding 5G, the Polish government has produced a White Book entitled, ‘the electromagnetic field. On physics, biology, medicine, standards, and the 5G network,’ which was presented by Deputy Minister Wanda Buk at the videoconference of telecom ministers in May.

A Polish official told EURACTIV that they hope the publication “will be considered a significant contribution to the EU-wide efforts in counteracting disinformation regarding 5G/EMF.”


Democracy Action Plan

Public Consultations. Daniel Braun, Deputy Head of Cabinet for European Commission Vice-President for Values and Transparency,Věra Jourová, revealed recently that public consultations on the Commission’s Democracy Action Plan, would run from 15 July until mid-September. The Action Plan aims to to safeguard elections from malicious interference online by addressing political advertising and disinformation.



Apple-Ireland. The European Union’s second-highest court will next week rule in an appeal by Apple and Ireland against an EU ruling for the U.S. company to pay €13 billion ($16 billion) in back taxes, the Irish government said on Wednesday (8 July).

Wirecard. The balance sheet scandal surrounding the payment company Wirecard raises many questions. Politicians are currently vigorously pursuing one of them: Where were the supervisory authorities? EURACTIV Germany reports.

Digital Tax. S&D MEP Paul Tang is expected to become the chair of the European Parliament’s new tax subcommittee this Friday, reports EURACTIV’s Jorge Valero. Tang was rapporteur on one of Parliament’s Digital Tax resolutions, adopted at the December 2018 plenary. Parliament’s position was much more ambitious than the Commission’s, with minimum taxable revenue set at €40 million in addition to a 5% tax rate



Jourova expresses solidarity with Index. “I have been following the situation of Index with concern. I would like to express my solidarity with the staff of Index who have been working under very difficult conditions,” Commissioner Jourová, wrote to news website, Hungary’s most popular media outlet. EURACTIV’s Vlagyiszlav Makszimov has the details.


On my radar

On Monday (13 July), Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders is presenting the Commission’s GDPR evaluation to members of Parliament’s Civil Liberties committee. 


What else I’m reading this week:

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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