Digital Brief: Facebook fallout, 2022 digital agenda, AI in law enforcement

The Digital Brief is EURACTIV's weekly tech newsletter.

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“The things I saw at Facebook over and over again was, there were conflicts of interest between what was good for the public and what was good for Facebook. And Facebook, over and over again, chose to optimise for its own interests”

-Frances Haugen, former Facebook employee and whistle-blower of the Facebook Files

 

Story of the week: Facebook has just been through probably its worst week in years. On Sunday, former employee Frances Haugen revealed that she was the source of the Facebook Files, a series of damning revelations that the company has long known yet failed to address the harm Instagram causes to the mental health of teenage girls. The whistleblower went as far as saying on national television that Facebook consistently prioritises profit over everything. The revelations were followed by an internet outage that took Facebook and its services, including Instagram, WhatsApp, Messanger, down for six hours on Monday. Facebook’s stock plunged by almost 5%, wiping off $6 billion of Mark Zuckerberg’s own shares.

Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton, without naming Facebook directly, slammed the platform’s “arrogance of the too big to care,” and pointed to the Digital Services Act as the key piece of legislation that will put a stop to the monetisation of disinformation and harmful content. DSA rapporteur Christel Schaldemose and shadow rapporteur Alexandra Geese have invited Frances Haugen to testimony before the European Parliament. There were also those who drew antitrust conclusions from the outage. EU competition chief Margrethe Vestager, in particular, pointed to the Digital Markets Act as a way to avoid having just a few big players for tech services. Read more.

 

Don’t miss: What’s on the Commission’s digital menu for next year? EURACTIV got an exclusive view of a draft version of the 2022 work programme, with some additional details on the Cyber Resilience Act and Chips Act. The two legislative proposals are both planned for Q3 of next year together with the Media Freedom Act. But don’t hold your breath. The Commission is consistently optimistic in its planning, hence adoption might be pushed as far as the end of the year. Some other interesting initiatives concern merger control, digital skills and education, state aid for broadband and public service interoperability. Read more.

 

Also this week

  • The European Parliament adopted a resolution on AI applications in law enforcement
  • Google’s competitors want measures for default settings in the DMA
  • France bans Amazon from delivering books for free
  • The removal of hate speech on online platforms slows down

 

Before we start: What does media freedom look like in the digital age? Digital technologies and the rise of online platforms have reshaped how we produce, share and consume news, but the concept of media freedom has seen comparatively little change. As threats to journalists increase, some governments and the EU are asking how protections can be updated to keep up with digitalisation. We hear from the authors of a new report exploring the relationship between media freedom and technological development on this week’s podcast.

Media freedom for the digital age

Digital technologies and the rise of online platforms have reshaped how we produce, share and consume news, but the concept of media freedom has seen comparatively little change.

 

Artificial Intelligence

AI & law enforcement. MEPs have called for strict controls on the use of AI by law enforcement and the judiciary, notably calling for a ban on biometric recognition technologies in publicly accessible spaces and on predicting techniques for policing. The EU lawmakers also called for a risk-based approach with emphasis on transparency, accountability and non-discrimination. Although the resolution is not binding, it sent a political signal ahead of the EU’s upcoming Artificial Intelligence Act. AIA rapporteur Brando Benifei promised to stick to these principles.

However, the approval of the resolution was not unanimous, as MEPs from the European People’s party Presented amendments intended to dilute the text. Interestingly, it was the French delegation of Renew that swung the balance against the amendments, in spite of the security–focused approach Paris has often advocated. Read more.

Cybersecurity

Chronically underfunded. The Parliament has called on the Commission and member states to increase their financial and human resources when it comes to cybersecurity, as deficiencies in these areas were identified as key stumbling blocks to the creation of a secure digital environment. MEPs called for greater EU investment in its cyber defence capacity across the board, and singled out the bloc’s Cybersecurity Agency (ENISA) as being chronically underfunded. Read more.

Data & privacy

GDPR gaps. The GDPR may have been in effect for over three years, but companies continue to violate consent rules and illegally collect data in Europe. According to one security monitoring company, on average throughout May and August, half a million online ad impressions breached users’ data collection preferences each day and similar unauthorized actions have been detected by other firms.

Locked out of LinkedIn. Italy’s data protection authority has ruled that it is illegal to directly contact people on LinkedIn for advertising purposes that were not indicated when the users signed up. The creation of a profile on the site, the watchdog ruled, does not equal an indiscriminate authorization to be contacted by other LinkedIn users.

“It’s clearly unacceptable to misuse someone’s data, and we encourage our members to report any messages or postings they believe do not comply with our guidelines so we can investigate,” a LinkedIn spokesperson told EURACTIV.

ICO improvements. The UK Information Commissioner’s Office has generally welcomed a review of the country’s data protection framework, saying that proposals for a strengthened regime, including reform of the constitution of the Commissioner’s Office, would be of value. However, ICO warned against potential government interventions, pointed to the vagueness on AI provisions and argued that the right to human review should be expanded rather than limited. Among the proposals are measures to establish a more commonly used model for regulatory governance, simplify modes of data compliance for companies and ensure that accountability mechanisms are in place.

Disinformation

Commission’s Code concerns. Eight new potential signatories have joined the process for reviewing the Code of Practice on Disinformation, as the Commission pushes for more actors to sign up and for its provisions to be strengthened. Last week saw a number of companies and organisations join the procedure, which is building on a review of the original code, launched in 2018. However, despite the new attention, an informed source on the matter told EURACTIV that the Commission is worried about the likelihood of reaching an agreement, fearing that platforms may be too distracted by DSA negotiations and that even if one is reached, timeliness might be used as an excuse to move away from the Commission’s guidance. Read more.

DMA

My enemy’s enemy is my friend. Four search engines have united to call on EU lawmakers to ensure that the DMA takes action against Google. In an open letter, DuckDuckGo, Qwant, Ecosia and Lilo endorsed the proposal’s aim but said it failed to address their collective rival Google’s dominant position. The added that they are still waiting to see substantive results from previous antitrust actions taken by the Commission. Their central request, the companies say, is that the DMA takes steps to prevent Google from making itself the default setting across all search entry points and ensures that users can change the provider they use with just a single click. Read more.

Room for improvement. The President of Italy’s Competition Authority has criticised the DMA’s centralized enforcement and “one-size-fits-all” approach, questioning its adequacy in light of the fact that digital technologies span the entire economy, rather than being confined to a specific sector. While legislation to address the mismatch between current antitrust instruments and the power of monopolies was positive, the head of the watchdog argued, significant room for improvement remains when it comes to the DMA.

DSA

Here to stay. Country of origin and enforcement issues took centre stage of the DSA discussions in the European Council, overshadowing other controversial points such as content moderation. And that’s likely to be the case for some time. While many countries have still been positioning in recent weeks, the debate is heating up and governments are becoming more vocal.

The Netherlands and Belgium have expressed support for the Irish side yesterday, whereas heavyweights such as Germany, Italy and Spain are standing with France. The Slovenian Presidency put forth a proposal that would give more power to the European Commission on enforcement, but which could conflict with the country of origin principle.

Hot spring. The European Council summit that will take place later this month is meant to commit to reaching final adoption of the DSA and DMA by Spring 2022, according to the draft conclusions circulated last week and seen by EURACTIV. Many read the deadline as March, just in time for the French presidential election and for President Macron to claim victory for having brokered landmark laws that curb the power of big American corporations.

Last resort. Latvia has advanced a potential game-changing proposal for the DSA; the possibility to take down online platforms that have their legal basis outside the EU and that consistently violate the DSA rules. The measure is intended as a last resort, drawing on similar provisions on ‘structural remedies’ present in the DMA. The European Commission opposed the proposal, saying that the current text already provides sufficient safeguards. A few member states expressed support however, although the proposal emerged just before yesterday’s meeting and has not been properly analysed. Latvia fears that Russian platforms might be used to spread disinformation and harmful content.

Facebook fallout. MEPs Christel Schaldemose and Alexandra Geese, rapporteur and shadow rapporteur for the DSA, have issued a joint statement on recent Facebook scandals centred on the company’s knowledge of the harm its platforms were causing. The MEPs, both of whom were in touch with the whistle-blower who came forward on Sunday to slam Facebook for focusing solely on profit, called for strong content moderation regulation and extensive transparency measures as part of the DSA. “It is naive,” said Geese, “to appeal to corporate self-regulation and responsibility.”

Manifestly illegal. EU countries have been trying to clarify what ‘manifestly illegal’ might mean in practice, as that’s a term most legal systems do not have a definition of. Sweden initially planned to produce a non-paper asking for a clear definition but failed to secure support. A potential solution  could be to add the definition in the recitals of the DSA proposal, rather than in articles.

e-Commerce

No free books. France introduced a “book economy” bill this week, meaning book deliveries are no longer free of charge. With the aim of preventing online e-commerce platforms from dominating the market and forcing French booksellers out of business, the bill introduces a minimum price for delivery. The move follows a long tradition in France of protection for the book industry. Read more.

Industrial strategy

That’s how it’s done. Despite its comparatively small size, Estonia has surged ahead of other countries when it comes to digitalisation. After just over two decades, almost all government services are run online and the Baltic state hosts a digital ecosystem that has made it home to the highest number of start-ups per capita in the EU. Despite its high level of digitalisation making it a key target of cyberattacks, Estonia is now a model for many other European countries seeking similar development. Read more.

Trusted cloud. French security and defence firm Thales will partner with Google in order to obtain a “trusted cloud” label from the French government. The strategic partnership will allow the company to operationalise a sovereign cloud service by 2023 under a government-approved approach that allows for companies to achieve data sovereignty while factoring in security and privacy measures required by the state. Read more.

Media

SLAPPs: to be tackled. The Commission has launched a public consultation on its plan to protect journalists and human rights defenders from Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs), abusive litigation used to silence those in the media and civil society. The initiative, which was announced in December as part of the European Democracy Action Plan and is expected to be adopted in the spring, will take the form of legislation and recommendations, and comes at a time when the use of SLAPPs in Europe is growing. Read more.

Cross-border cooperation. Commission Vice-President for values and transparency, Věra Jourová, has called for greater international collaboration to strengthen the media industry and bolster efforts to protect journalists. Speaking this week at a conference on innovation in the sector, Jourová outlined the steps being taken by the EU to ensure that media professionals, under increasing threat, are better safeguarded and that media outlets are able to operate and develop freely. Read more.

Media missing. EU leaders gathered in Slovenia for the Western Balkans summit this week, adopting a declaration that emphasised connectivity and the digital transition. While the summit centred on enlargement, which the EU recommitted itself to, some argued that the scope of discussions wasn’t broad enough. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called for press freedom to be featured on the agenda, arguing that it is a key issue in the Western Balkans states and that the EU needs to be more ambitious in securing access to reliable news and information for those living in these countries.

Platforms

Hate speech removals fall. The latest evaluation of the Commission’s Code of Conduct on Illegal Hate Speech Online shows that progress is slowing. The percentage of content being responded to by platforms within the 24-hour period asked for by the Code has dropped since last year, as has the percentage of content removed once flagged. The data has raised questions over the effectiveness of the Code, which is voluntary, and calls for a strengthened approach under the upcoming DSA. Read more.

Apple and antitrust, again. Apple is reportedly set to face another EU antitrust suit, this time focused on its NFC chip technology and the fact that it can only be accessed via Apple Pay. The tech giant is currently the subject of three Commission competition cases, and its Apple Pay system has drawn scrutiny from other regulators. The EU’s statement of objections could land on the desks of Apple’s lawyers next year. The iPhone maker might also be in trouble for its app store again, as Reuters anticipated the Dutch antitrust authority will find Apple’s app store rules as anti-competitive.

Telecom

Licensing litigation. Swedish telecom company Ericsson has launched legal action in Texas, seeking assistance from the courts in collecting patent royalties related to 5G networking technologies from Apple. The tech, developed by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute, was enabled by Ericsson’s patents, the company says, arguing that it should be licensed to other companies. Apple, however, disputes that the terms of agreement offered by Ericsson are “fair and reasonable”, legal if ambiguous requirements when it comes to patent licensing standards.

 

On our radar:

The LIBE committee is expected to adopt the new mandate for Europol on Monday, giving the agency significant new competencies in terms of data processing, research and innovation and exchange with private companies. The Commission is due to publish its strategy for international connectivity on Wednesday. An informal meeting between telecom ministers is taking place on Thursday, and AI will be one of the hot topics. Also on Thursday, the parliament is set to adopt its report on the roaming file.

 

What else we’re reading this week:

  • The 5 Biggest Data Science Trends In 2022 (Forbes)
  • Intel not considering UK chip factory after Brexit (BBC

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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