Welcome to EURACTIV’s Digital Brief, your weekly update on all things digital in the EU. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.
“Only Facebook gets to look under the hood. Facebook cannot remain the judge, jury, prosecutor, and witness.”
– Frances Haugen, Facebook whistleblower and former employee of the social network
Story of the week: After London, Lisbon, and Brussels, Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower, ended her European tour at both the French national assembly and senate on Wednesday.
She covered the issue of transparency of algorithms, her doubts about interoperability, and the need for better moderation of the social network and better protection of whistleblowers. She also praised the Digital Services Act (DSA), the European bill designed to tackle these shortcomings.
“On moderation, we need to start by investing in languages. Many languages are not really covered by Facebook. Even British English is not as well covered as American English, and French, for example, does not have all the security systems that English has,” she told the French MPs on Wednesday morning.
She made very similar comments to British and European lawmakers.
In Strasbourg, Haugen praised the content-neutral approach of the DSA, calling on MEPs to “set a gold standard”. She stressed the need to make Facebook more transparent and its data accessible to researchers, NGOs, and journalists. She also warned against the exception for trade secrets, arguing it would provide a loophole to refuse access to data. Read more.
Calendar coincidence (or maybe not), Facebook, or shall I say Meta, released its Community Standards Enforcement Report for the third quarter of 2021 on Tuesday. The prevalence of hate speech on Facebook continued to decrease for the fourth quarter in a row, according to the firm. In more concrete terms, they say that out of every 10,000 views of content on Facebook, three are of hateful content. They also made new metrics for bullying and harassment publicly available.
Don’t miss: EU ambassadors have approved their ‘general approach’ to Digital Markets Act, aiming at regulating large online platforms such as Amazon, Google or Facebook for their systemic role in the digital ecosystem. They brought a few changes to the Commission’s proposal. Most of these “improvements” are meant to make the flagship regulation “clearer and ensure future-proofing and prevent circumvention.” Ministers from the EU-27 are set to give their final green light on 25 November at the Competitiveness Council. Negotiations will then move to the trilogue once the European Parliament has adopted its final position. Read more.
Also this week:
- Google loses its challenge against EU antitrust ruling, €2.4 billion fine
- Meta to stop allowing advertisers to target ads based on race, religion or political belief
- The growing difficulty of securing talents for European tech
- The European Parliament’s position against malicious lawsuits targeting journalists
Before we start: Tommaso Valletti had a key role in shaping EU competition policy in critical years for the digital economy. In this interview, he gives his take on killer acquisitions, the scope of the DMA, provisions on the regulatory dialogue and the potential risks that would make the new EU law less effective. Valletti concludes on a critical note, about his work and that of fellow Commission regulators.
A message by Facebook
New business is happening on Facebook
Small businesses across Europe are benefitting from Facebook’s apps and services. In 2021, 73% of small EU companies surveyed said they used Facebook’s platforms to help start their business. Our platforms and services, including Ad products Messenger and WhatsApp, help new businesses build their brands and customer bases. Find out more.
Putting France on the AI world map. The French tech sector will receive more than €2 billion in funding over the next five years, according to the second phase of the country’s national AI strategy, presented this week. The strategy and its funds will focus on training, research, and start-ups at the national and European levels and builds on the initial plan announced in 2018, which sought to “put France on the world map of AI”, a goal which is off to a strong start, with an 11% growth in AI startups from 2020 to 2021. Read more.
Facial recognition’s short death. Facebook’s announcement last week that it would stop deploying facial recognition in photo tagging was not quite the end of the story for the company’s use of the technology. Meta has since clarified that, while the software will no longer be used on Facebook, no such guarantees are in place for products used in the metaverse, where the company is already looking to incorporate biometrics. For critics of the tech, who have long been warning of its bias and privacy issues, the victory of last week’s announcement appears to have been short-lived.
Get the money out, Google. The EU General Court dismissed on Wednesday Google’s appeal against a landmark decision by the Commission, and the €2.4bn fine that came along with it, that the search engine had abused its dominant market position to favour its Shopping Unit against competitors. Brussels’ antitrust probe was initiated back in 2010, following complaints that the tech company was displaying its Shopping Unit in a more eye-catching manner than competitors. Its final decision in 2017 found that Google’s algorithm had been illegally demoting competing shopping services in the general result page. Read more.
Let’s settle this. Looking for a way to avoid substantial fines, Amazon is offering a settlement and concessions in two EU antitrust cases it’s currently facing. The company is seeking to ward off the possible penalty of up to 10% of annual revenue that the Commission could institute following its investigation into the retailer’s potential abuse of its market dominance to gain unfair advantage over competitors on its platform. Reaching a potential conclusion in the negotiations, however, could take months.
Paris calling. Both the United States and the European Commission announced they are joining the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace. Launched in November 2018 during the first edition of the Paris Peace Forum, it aims at ensuring more collaboration within the international community to make the online world a safer place. “I firmly believe that there must be consequence whenever security and stability are being threatened in cyberspace,” US Vice-President Kamala Harris said upon announcing plans to join the initiative at the Paris Peace Forum opening. “The United States joins more than 1,200 actors, including 80 states, public and local authorities, private actors and civil society organisations,” said French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
Ransomwares strike again. Several German companies, including retail electronics companies MediaMarkt and Saturn, have been affected by ransomware attacks in recent days. “We are currently working intensively with internal and external experts as well as the responsible authorities in order to analyse and identify the damage caused as quickly as possible,” MediaMarkt told EURACTIV Germany. 500 ransomware attacks have been documented in recent years, according to the interior ministry’s figures but, given only 12% of cyberattacks are reported, the actual number of attacks is likely much higher. Read more.
Data & privacy
Luxembourg lawsuit. WhatsApp can sue NSO Group, the Israeli spyware company at the centre of the Pegasus project revelations earlier this year, in Luxembourg, a court in California has ruled after the messaging service launched a legal challenge over allegations that NSO technology had been used to hack the accounts of around 1,400 users. NSO Group has denied the claim, but the US court threw out its bid for immunity, paving the way for legal proceedings in Luxembourg, where the company holds nine entities for conducting back-office activities.
Climate coalition. A group of climate leaders, brands and advertisers have signed an open letter calling for COP26 decision-makers and online platforms to address the issue of climate misinformation. The signatories, who come from NGOs, major companies such as Virgin Media and Ben & Jerry’s, as well as government and the climate sector, are seeking a universal definition of climate disinformation, action based on this and a comprehensive response to the issue from technology companies.
Obstacle reevaluation. Low supply and limited practicability are two key obstacles in Germany’s digitalisation, according to a report released this week. The finding runs counter to the common view in the country that slow expansion of broadband networks and data protection issues are the main barriers. High on the list of priorities moving forward, the report concludes, should be rolling out communication infrastructure and digital services to a greater proportion of the population. Read more.
Opening up. The French government’s roadmap for developing open source to make it a vector of digital sovereignty and a guarantee of “democratic confidence” was presented by Public Transformation and Civil Service Minister Amélie de Montchalin on Wednesday. “Open source has enormous potential for Europe and its digital sovereignty strategy” as it removes “risks of economic subjugation, geostrategic and technological dependence” and focuses on “transparency that seems to be fully aligned with European democratic values, emphasising information for citizens and control of their social system,” according to an expert. Read more.
Digital Services Act
Final countdown? The rapporteur for the DSA, Christel Schaldemose, said on Thursday, she is confident that the Parliament’s position on the text will be approved by the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee (IMCO) in December and then voted upon in the plenary in January. There are still a lot of points of friction between the European parties, most notably on how to deal with algorithms, the level playing field for online markets, consumer protection, as well as targeted ads, which the S&D hopes “it can come in both files,” Schaldemose said.
Wanted: tech regulation. A Yougov poll, commissioned by Avaaz, has found high support across publics in Germany, France, Italy and Spain for stronger regulation of big tech. An average of 76% across the four countries said they were very or somewhat concerned about societal dangers posed by social media companies, and 83% supported holding Big Tech accountable for “harmful” algorithms. 80% expressed support for EU regulation, with 79% saying that transparency would be an important part of this.
Staff shortage. Securing talented workers to staff startups is set to be one of the key challenges facing the European tech sector as capital markets mature and funding expands. The longstanding skilled labour shortage faced by new businesses is compounded by the fact that they often have to compete for workers with major tech companies that can offer better pay and higher reputation. Some companies have taken advantage of the situation, however, offering services for up and reskilling companies’ workforces. Read more.
Locating the chips. Commissioner Thierry Breton travelled to Saxony on Friday, to meet with leading representatives of the German semiconductor industry. They discussed the upcoming Chips Act – Europe’s flagship initiative to bring semiconductor production back to Europe. “Microelectronics are in the local DNA in Saxony,” Breton said on Twitter, adding that it is “a very interesting location, with potential for further development.”
Seeking clarity. The Commission is seeking more details on a US initiative concerning the future of internet governance, according to an internal communication seen by EURACTIV this week. The Alliance for the Future of The Internet is intended to foster a joint understanding of the internet’s future but the EU, one of those invited to join by Washington, sees it as lacking clarity when it comes to key operational aspects. Read more.
Protect, don’t SLAPP. The European Parliament overwhelmingly endorsed a resolution to protect journalists and critical voices from abusive lawsuits, otherwise known as Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP), in a vote on Thursday. “We cannot stand by and watch as the rule of law is increasingly threatened, and the freedoms of expression, information, and association are undermined. It is our duty to protect journalists, NGOs and civil society organisations reporting on matters of public interest,” said co-rapporteur Tiemo Wolken. Read more.
“Act of vengeance”. The staff of the Kyiv Post were fired en masse on Monday and the publication, Ukraine’s oldest English-language paper, was shut down. The news came without warning just weeks after the Post’s owner, Adnan Kivan, announced plans to expand the paper. Staff say the closure is an “act of vengeance” after they objected to the nature of the expansion and the appointment of Kivan’s allies to key editorial posts. They were fired, one former journalist at the paper told EURACTIV, “because we are inconvenient”. Read more.
Funds unfrozen. Slovenia has said that it will resume funding the country’s national news agency, STA, after pressure from the EU following months of economic suspension. The Commission had called on the government to restart funding, which had been withheld since December following the agency’s critical reporting, saying that the pay freeze presented “major risks for media freedom and media pluralism in Slovenia and consequently the EU.” Earlier this year, STA turned to crowdfunding to keep its doors open; in September, its director resigned, citing attempts by the government to “subordinate the agency”.
Ad rules narrowed. Meta will stop allowing advertisers to target ads based on data linked to sensitive categories such as race, religion or political beliefs, the company announced this week. Beginning in January next year, advertisers will be limited to much broader targeting categories such as gender, age and location, though some still see this as insufficient when it comes to addressing the risks of targeting. Advertising is also currently high on the agenda of the European Commission, which is set to release new legislation on political ads before the end of the year. Read more.
What else we’re reading this week: