Digital Brief: The Coronavirus Edition

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“We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic.”

– World Health Organisation



This week’s issue of EURACTIV Digital Brief looks at the implications to the tech sector from the deadly outbreak that has now well and truly arrived on Europe’s shores. We also look at the swell of misinformation on the subject, in addition to how data is being harvested to monitor the spread of the virus, and the next-generation technologies being deployed to screen those who may have contracted COVID-19. 


*Also this week*

A Greta for Tech, EU accommodation data sharing, Google on P2B, Amazon in Court, Google V Hungary, Data sovereignty in Agrifood, UK home office GDPR breaches, and more…


EU monitoring disinformation. The EU’s Rapid Alert System for monitoring serious cases of disinformation has been put into use following a series of online campaigns surrounding the deadly coronavirus outbreak, the European Commission has confirmed.

Disinformation. Research conducted by the European External Action Service’s East StratCom Force has uncovered a number of ‘creative’ disinformation campaigns surrounding COVID-19. Those include fake news about Jackie Chan contracting the virus, as well as rumours that the coronavirus is an American invention.

Whatsapp. Facebook-owned WhatsApp has been subject to a ‘flood of disinformation’ in a number of countries including Nigeria, Singapore, Brazil, Pakistan, Ireland, the Washington Post reports.

No ‘do it yourself’ data collection. The Italian Data Protection Authority has said there should be no ‘do it yourself’ efforts on the part of data controllers to collect and store data on individuals unless legally obliged to do so.

Employers must “refrain from collecting, a priori and in a systematic and generalised way, also through specific requests to the individual worker or unauthorized investigations, information on the presence of any flu symptoms of the worker and his closest contacts or in any case falling within the extra working sphere,” a statement from the Garante Per La Protezione Dei Dati read.

Estonian resilience. EURACTIV spoke to S&D’s Estonian MEP Marina Kaljurand this morning, who said that should coronavirus spread further in the Baltics, her country would be well prepared in terms of facilitating the necessity of remote working. “Estonia already has a well-established remote working ecosystem,” she said.

“For other countries, however, there could be cultural challenges related to remote working – they’re just not used to it.” As the coronavirus spreads further across the EU, video-conferencing software is becoming more and more important – Skype was invented by two Estonians in 2003.

China. A research group based in Toronto has found that the Chinese application WeChat has censored certain keywords associated with the coronavirus outbreak.

In this context, Raman Jit Singh Chima, Asia policy director at Access Now has told Reuters that “governments are legitimising tools of oppression as tools of public health.”

“The danger is that these measures stay in place and that data continues to be collected and used. We have seen this happen in the past after major events in China and after 9/11 in the United States,” he said.

Elsewhere, Chinese citizens are being forced to use software on their smartphones which siphons personal data off to law enforcement agencies, the New York Times reports. This comes after the news that China is deploying a range of high-tech devices to monitor the spread of the outbreak – this includes thermal-camera drones, advanced facial recognition software, robotic meals-on-wheels, and smart helmets.

Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg released a statement on his personal Facebook page yesterday saying the platform is offering free advertising to the World Health Organisation during the outbreak, and ‘millions’ in ad credits have been granted to ‘other organisations.’ Zuckerberg added that Facebook is also “removing false claims and conspiracy theories that have been flagged by leading global health organisations,” and that the platform is also “blocking people from running ads that try to exploit the situation — for example, claiming that their product can cure the disease.”

Facebook has also said it is sharing “aggregated and anonymised mobility data and high-resolution density maps” with researchers at Harvard University’s School of Public Health and National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan in order to assist forecasting models for the spread of the virus.

Zuckerberg – Chan contraction. According to Buzzfeed Newsa relative of a contract worker at the Chan Zuckerberg Institute – the ‘family’ branch of Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, has tested positive for coronavirus. As a result, all employees have been asked to work from home.

Twitter. In early February, Twitter launched a series of country-specific partnerships which resulted in the establishment of on-service prompt that the company says is designed to bring users “credible health information” when they make searches related to the coronavirus outbreak. The move was welcomed at the time by Belgian Public Health Minister, Maggie De Block. Pinterest has also disclosed that it is limiting coronavirus-related searches to results from “internationally recognized health organizations,” according to The Verge. 

Twitter works from home. Twitter earlier this week released a statement “encouraging all employees globally to work from home if they’re able.”

Coronavirus millionaires. Timo Klingler, a 24-year-old from Heidelberg, Germany, has made millions after investing in face masks which have been selling in their troves online as the spread of Coronavirus increases.

Coronavirus conference pullouts. A number of tech giants have pulled out of global conferences out of fears of exacerbating the spread of the coronavirus. These include the recent announcements this week that Facebook and Twitter have withdrawn from Texas’ SXSW conference and Google will not host an in-person I/O 2020.

Free video software. Earlier this week, Google announced that it will offer free access to “advanced Hangouts Meet video-conferencing capabilities” for all G Suite and G Suite for Education customers.” Microsoft, meanwhile, is offering a free six-month trial globally for a premium tier of Microsoft Teams.

Amazon employee. Amazon has confirmed that one of its employees in Seattle has contracted the virus. The employee is currently in quarantine.

Tesla supply chain. The electric vehicle company Tesla has revealed that it has had to install older and slower processors in its new fleet of vehicles, due to supply chain delays impacted by coronavirus.

Zoom investments. The videoconferencing software Zoom has been experiencing record usage, with stock recently up by 70% for the year. This trend has also been reflected across other platform technologies, including Netflix.

AirBnB cancellations. The accommodation platform AirBnB has suspended check-ins at all listings in Beijing until March. More broadly, the company has activated its “extenuating circumstances policy” to “offer impacted hosts and guests the option of cancelling eligible reservations without charge.”

Uber & Lyft. In the US, Uber and Lyft drivers have received guidance on how best to deal with the coronavirus outbreak with general cleanliness. This comes after Uber temporarily suspended accounts in Mexico following the potential transmission of during one particular Uber ride.

Apple co-founder. Steve Wozniak tweeted earlier this week that he recently returned from China with his wife and both could have been ‘patient zero’ in the US.



Google seeks P2B clarification. A recent EURACTIV Freedom of Request submission has brought to light documents that reveal details of a meeting between Google and the Commission in January this year, in which the company sought clarification on the scope of the Platform-to-Business regulation adopted last year. The regulation aims to force platforms to be more fair and transparent in their business agreements. The rules also require platforms to provide a description of the parameters that determine online product ranking.

According to one of the released documents, Google told Commission counterparts that there was a ‘lack of clarity’ on whether certain ad products fall under the scope of the regulation and also noted that there were “difficulties with differentiation between ads and ranking influenced by direct or indirect remuneration.

A Greta for tech. Digitalisation has produced new challenges ranging from cybersecurity vulnerabilities and disinformation to gaming addiction and cyberbullying. Younger generations offer unique insights into these challenges but find themselves on the margins of EU policy debates, writes Laura Groenendaal, as she calls for a Greta Thunberg for Technology.

Accommodation data sharing. The European Commission announced today that is has contracted a landmark data sharing agreement with Airbnb, Booking, Expedia Group and Tripadvisor, allowing Eurostat “to publish data on short-stay accommodations offered via these platforms across the EU.”

“For the first time we are gaining reliable data that will inform our ongoing discussions with cities across Europe on how to address this new reality in a balanced manner,” a statement from Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton read.

Amazon in court. Amazon is at the Court of Justice of the European Union, seeking to overturn an EU order to repay around 250 million euros in back taxes to Luxembourg.

Google v Hungary: 1-1. While EU law permits Hungarian authorities to oblige Google and other foreign advertising service providers to submit a tax declaration, the penalty system in place was too disproportionate and thus amounted to a restriction on the freedom to provide services secured by EU treaties, found the European Court of Justice on Tuesday (3 March). Željko Trkanjec has the detail.

German AI Observatory. EURACTIV’s Philipp Grull reports this week that the German ministry of labour opened a think-tank on the social impact of artificial intelligence, called “AI Observatory”, equipped with a budget of €20 million till 2022. Based on risk-assessments and foresight, it will craft recommendations on the regulation of AI applications and facilitate the creation of international institutions for the same purpose.

At the opening ceremony, labour minister Hubertus Heil (SPD) said that “digital progress must become social progress.” The government is eager to tackle digitalization, and it should be: Germans have little faith in their government’s ability to shape the digital revolution, a survey found in January.

‘EU needs AI adoption,’ says Bruegel Director Guntram Wolf. During a briefing with Brussels reporters yesterday, Wolf said AI is crucial for the global competitiveness of EU businesses, highlighting the fact that only 18% of large firms have adopted AI to scale. Wolf added that a lack of EU adoption of this technology could result in risks such as the bloc depending on technology emanating from outside the continent, as well as EU companies potentially being prevented from developing expertise in the field of AI.

Data sovereignty in Agrifood. EURACTIV’s Natasha Foote writes this week that the virtues of digital farming have been extolled by many, including the European Commission and industry voices. But, as a recent situation in the US demonstrates, digital farming carries concerns which requires careful consideration.

Blacklisted firm signs transparency register. Hikvision, the Chinese firm that styles itself as the ‘the world’s leading provider of innovative security products and solutions’ has signed the EU transparency register. The company was recently blacklisted by the US due to alleged links over the repression of Uighur Muslims in Xinyang.

Facial recognition study. Fewer than two in 10 people are happy with their facial image being shared with public authorities, new research from the EU agency for fundamental rights has shown. The findings come after the recent news that police forces in the European Union are planning to establish an interconnected bloc-wide network of facial recognition databases, leaked documents have revealed.

UK home office GDPR breaches. The UK home office violated the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in its mismanagement of the EU Settlement Scheme, a report from the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration has found.

5G conflict of interest? Following a question from Green MEP Michèle Rivasi on potential conflicts of interest at play in the EU’s Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks, which may impact evaluations on the health risks of 5G. The Commission responded earlier this week that after a re-assessment, no conflicts of interests have been identified.

Nokia change. After more than a decade at the helm, Nokia’s Rajeev Suri will step down in September, to be replaced by Pekka Lundmark.

Media sustainability. The EU has launched a €5.1m package designed to promote media freedom and pluralism in Europe, the Commission announced on Monday.

Access Now Content Guidelines. The internet rights lobby Access Now have launched a paper entitled  ’26 Recommendations on content governance: a guide for lawmakers, regulators and company policymakers,’ setting out their human rights recommendations for self-regulation, co-regulation and state regulation of online content.



On my radar.

EU Council Law Enforcement Working Party will discuss fundamental rights considerations concerning facial recognition technology in the context of law enforcement at sporting events next week


What else I’m reading this week:

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