Digital Brief: Tech Biopower

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“There can be an issue of biopower when you have a relationship where there is indeed a giant that sets their own terms and conditions.”

– Margrethe Vestager, Commission Executive Vice-President Elect, Monday 18 November. 


VESTAGER. Our interview with the EU’s new Digital tsar earlier this week brought up some interesting perspectives. Margrethe Vestager took aim at the dominance of tech firms saying that “there can be an issue of biopower when you have a relationship where there is indeed a giant that sets their own terms and conditions.”

Vestager was speaking in the context of Google’s recent changes in service that will result in the company avoiding the legal obligation to remunerate press publishers for the displaying of links to online articles in search results, a new right contained in the EU’s recently adopted Copyright directive.

The Dane’s comments came following French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent request for EU and French data protection authorities to probe Google’s stance on the Copyright directive. We also discussed media freedom, AI and Ethics, and of course the highly anticipated Digital Services Act. Read more here or watch the full video interview here.

More broadly, Vestager’s revival of the term ‘biopower’ in the interview is an interesting move. The term was first coined by French philosopher Michel Foucault in the 1970s, originally referring to the ways in which people are controlled or regulated under regimes of authority. Should this narrative be perpetuated by the European Commission, then it gives an insight into how the EU’s new digital chief views the social consciousness of some of the world’s most dominant tech giants.

On AI, Vestager’s approach is cautious but not overly prohibitive. She told EURACTIV that “great opportunities come with great risks,” but that she has “strong reservations” with the ‘blanket’ application of some technologies in particular, such as facial recognition software.

GABRIEL ON AI: Staying with AI, Commissioner Mariya Gabriel spoke at the EPP conference in Zagreb earlier this week, where she rallied the ‘human in command approach’ to artificial intelligence – giving an insight into what we can expect leading up to the presentation of a Commission approach to AI and Ethics thing during the first 100 days of the start of the next mandate.

In Zagreb, earlier today Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen announced Gabriel’s new portfolio as the Commissioner responsible for Innovation and youth, as well as for research, education and culture, in what appears to be yet another concession to critics with regards to the titling of Commission portfolios.

WhatsApp & GDPR: Helen Dixon, the Irish Data Protection Commissioner, revealed earlier this week that a decision will be made next year as to whether WhatsApp has violated the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. Dixon also appeared on stage at the IAPP’s Data Protection Congress in Brussels on Wednesday morning, where she hit back at claims that the GDPR is not delivering the desired results. “There’s evidence significant progress is being made,” she said.

CZECH DIGITAX: The Czech government has approved a 7% digital tax on the income of large internet companies such as Facebook and Google. The new law should take effect in summer of 2020 and is estimated to bring annually around €200 million to the national budget. It still needs the green light by both chambers of the Parliament and the president, reports EURACTIV’s Ondřej Plevák.

ESTONIA’s DIGITAL CLOUT. The Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid was in town earlier this week for a high-level meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Commission-President elect Ursula von der Leyen, and incoming Council President Charles Michel. In a EURACTIV interview, the President was keen to rally the country’s digital profile, particularly the nation’s well-established eGovernance infrastructure, which ‘facilitates citizen interactions with the state through the use of electronic solutions.’ In 2014, the country became the first in the world to offer electronic residency to people from outside its country.

Kaljulaid said it is not necessarily the technology itself that has made Estonia what it is today, but rather the ‘legal space’ that the country has created as a means to foster innovation and high standards.

NATO SPACE PLANS. On the subject of NATO, foreign ministers within the alliance formally recognised outer space as the fifth military frontier alongside air, land, sea and cyber on Wednesday (20 November), in response to growing concerns over protecting satellite and navigation assets from enemy interference, EURACTIV’s Alexandra Brzozowski reports.

MERKEL & HUAWEI. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has got her work cut out with regards to the Chinese telecommunications firm, Huawei. There are reportedly divisions within her own CDU party on how to deal with the security accusations levelled at the firm and at the annual Leipzig CDU conference tomorrow, a motion has been tabled that, if approved, would severely hinder Huawei’s involvement in Germany’s 5G network infrastructure.

Elsewhere in Europe, French publication La Lettre A reported yesterday that Huawei have launched a defamation lawsuit against French researcher Valerie Niquet, after her research pointed towards links between Huawei and the Chinese state.

TELCOs on EPRIVACY: Ahead of COREPER talks on ePrivacy tomorrow, an alliance of telecommunication lobbies have banded together to raise concerns, despite improvements having been made. A joint letter from ETNO, the GSMA and Cable Europe read that there is the “lack of a level playing field…and a coherent protection framework for citizens,” and that the measures could also impact Europe’s ability to make itself “fit for the digital age.”

FackCheckUK? The UK’s Conservative Party has been accused of attempting to deceive voters by modifying the name of its press office Twitter Channel to “factcheckUK” during the leadership debate between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn earlier this week. Former Labour Minister David Lammy said the Conservatives “rebranded the Tory Party press page as FactCheckUK in order to con the public.”

BANKS HACKED. Arron Banks, founder of the pro-Brexit Leave.EU campaign, had his Twitter account hacked into this week, resulting in a leak of thousands of his private messages over several years. Banks released a statement in which he hit out at Twitter in not dealing with the hack quickly enough.

LABOUR’S BROADBAND PLEDGE: Staying with the UK, the opposition Labour party have pledged to bring the country’s broadband network infrastructure into public hands. Prime Minister Boris Johnson dubbed the pledge a ‘crazed communist scheme.’

MALTA ARREST. Police in Malta have arrested one of the country’s most well-known businessmen in connection with the murder in 2017 of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. The detained individual is reportedly Yorgen Fenech, director and co-owner of a business group that won a concession in 2013 from the Maltese state to build a gas power station in the country, according to Reuters. Green MEP Sven Giegold, who visited Malta following the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia, said after Wednesday’s arrest: “The Maltese authorities must ensure that the investigation into the murder of Daphne is thorough and free from any political interference. Malta needs to move on from being the money laundering and corruption hotspot of the European Union and become a country where justice, the rule of law and press freedom are entrenched.”

FLEMISH CULTURAL CUTS. EURACTIV’s Alexandra Brzozowski also reports this week that the Flemish government has announced plans to cut funding for the cultural sector, arts institutions and heritage preservation by 60% in 2020. In response, a hashtag campaign went viral over the weekend. “This drastic reduction of investment resources is not only a sign of a political agenda becoming too ideological. Today, journalists, ethnocultural associations and civil society organisations are also targeted.” Kobe Matthys from the State of the Arts organisation said.

EDPB: On Wednesday, the European Data Protection Board announced it has opened a public consultation on its guidelines for data protection by design and default. It is possible to submit feedback until January 16.

GOOGLE VS COMMISSION: The European Court of Justice confirmed yesterday that the company’s attempts to appeal against the €2.4 billion EU antitrust fine will be heard at the ECJ between 12 and 14 February.


On my radar.

Google’s YouTube will appear in the European Court of Justice on 26 November next week, with regards to a reference made by the German Federal Court of Justice (BGH) to the ECJ, concerning the question of whether the YouTube is responsible for copyright infringement by communication to the public.


***Next Week the Digital Brief will be taking a break while I’m away. We’ll be back with double the vigour and energy the following week.***


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