Digital Brief: UN internet crackdown

The Digital Brief is Euractiv's weekly tech newsletter.

Welcome to EURACTIV’s Digital Brief, your weekly update on all things digital in the EU. You can subscribe to the newsletter here


 “Such a treaty may become problematic in terms of human rights and rule of law protection.”

– Alexander Seger, Head of Cybersecurity, Council of Europe.


UN Internet crackdown. Certain UN members may have been ‘bought off’ by proponents of a controversial UN resolution on cybercrime in exchange for support on the plans, an official from the Council of Europe who deals with cybersecurity has told EURACTIV.

As part of the new measures, a group within the UN will be set up “to elaborate a comprehensive international convention on countering the use of information and communications technologies for criminal purposes.” The Russian-led plans had originally been put forward by a group of nations including China, Belarus, North Korea, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Venezuela and there are concerns that freedom of expression online could be compromised by such a treaty. Read more here.

Facebook’s freedom of expression. Social media giant Facebook has warned against curtailing freedom of expression as the EU considers measures to clamp down on disinformation campaigns across online platforms, with Vice-President of the Commission for Values and Transparency, Věra Jourová, saying that the EU’s Democracy Action Plan, set to be released later this year, will establish measures in the “fight against disinformation.”

Bezos hacking. Returning to the UN, special rapporteurs, Agnes Callamard and David Kaye, said yesterday that they had information pointing to the “possible involvement” of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the alleged 2018 hacking of a phone belonging to Amazon boss and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos.  

Facial Recognition. Following our leak last week of the Commission’s draft white paper on their Artificial Intelligence approach, the subject of facial recognition regulation has been high on the agenda this week. In Brussels earlier this week, Google chief Sundar Pichai called for ‘international alignment’ and ‘an agreement on core values’ in the future regulation of Artificial Intelligence, something that could prove challenging to obtain, bearing in mind the divergences between the US and the EU on the issue.

Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders gave his two cents to the European Parliament’s civil liberties committee earlier this week. He noted that healthcare and transportation could be two sectors that face AI regulation, and also said that he favoured a ‘horizontal approach’ to clamping down on Artificial Intelligence. During the dialogue, Reynders also revealed that a data adequacy agreement with South Korea will be made over the next few months. Listen more here:

Meanwhile, the subject of facial recognition regulation has featured prominently during this week’s CPDP conference in Brussels. Yesterday, as part of a panel set up by the Renew Europe group, Lotte Houwing of the Dutch digital rights foundation Bits Of Freedom said that under existing laws, these types of technologies should already be illegal, while Gwendal Le Grand of the French data protection authority (CNIL) said that ‘consent’ should be the keyword in any future regulation on facial recognition.

Also, Fieke Jansen, a PhD candidate at the Data Justice Lab and Daniel Leufer, Mozilla Foundation Fellow 2019-2020 penned an op-ed for us this week in which they looked into how the EU is bankrolling AI projects that are dubious and ethically questionable. Meanwhile, an explosive new US media report published on Saturday revealed that a secretive company has been selling the world’s most advanced known facial recognition software to local law enforcement agencies for at least 2 years.

In the European Parliament today, the Internal Market Committee backed a resolution aiming to address challenges related to the rapid development of artificial intelligence (AI) and automated decision-making (ADM) technologies. Following the adoption of the resolution, the Greens’ Petra De Sutter said: “We have to make sure that consumer protection and trust is ensured, that the EU’s rules on safety and liability for products and services are fit for purpose in the digital age and that the data sets used in automated decision-making systems are of high-quality and are unbiased”.

ePrivacy developments. Returning to the Civil Liberties Committee in Parliament, Croatian minister Josip Bilaver told MEPs earlier this week that the Presidency will present a compromise text on ePrivacy in February, noting that a balance will have to be made on both sides of the debate – between ensuring adequate privacy standards while not compromising on competitiveness and innovation. The minister refused to “promise” that a Council position will be found before the end of the Croatian Presidency.

Digital Tax. Jorge Valero reports this week that despite the US threats of imposing new tariffs, France, Italy, Spain and the UK said on Wednesday (22 January) they would move ahead with their national digital tax if there is no agreement at the OECD level by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, a 130 member strong coalition of MEPs today signed a letter to the US congress, highlighting the importance of establishing a digital services tax framework.

Trade war due to digital tax? According to’s partner, Hospodářské noviny, the US has threatened the Czech Republic with tariffs on Czech goods in the event that parliament adopts a 7% digital tax on Google, Facebook and other giants.’s Aneta Zachová has more.

Netflix tax. According to this recent report, Netflix may have moved “up to $430m in profit from international operations into tax havens in 2018.”

5G. EU countries can restrict or exclude high-risk 5G providers from core parts of their telecoms networks, new EU guidelines show, dealing a potential blow to China’s Huawei Technologies, in documents seen by Reuters.

Voss goes it alone. Elsewhere, Conservative German MEP Axel Voss, has published a manifesto on European digital policy in which he warns that Europe should not become a “digital colony” of other powers. Voss decided to publish his manifesto on European digital policy because he could not wait much longer, he told EURACTIV. That is because the European People’s Party (EPP)’s digital strategy paper is still being discussed and this process “took far too long”, according to Voss. Read more from EURACTIV’s Philipp Grüll.

UK Copyright Risk. Culture minister Nigel Adams backed measures in the Copyright Directive intended to support content creators earlier this week and said that following Brexit, more needs to be done in this field. “We support the overall aims of the Copyright Directive, but our imminent departure from the EU means we’re not required to implement the Copyright Directive in full,” he said. “It’s absolutely imperative we do everything possible to protect our brilliant creators.”

Rocket programme. The European Commission announced a €100 million investment in a prototype rocket project on Tuesday (21 January), as Europe aims to keep a firm hold in a space industry predicted to be worth €1 trillion in the coming years, reports Sam Morgan.

Cyberattack on foreign ministry continues, attacker information withheld. Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg confirmed yesterday (22 January) that the cyberattack on his ministry, which had first been reported on 3 January, is still ongoing. But what about the perpetrator? Can their identity be confirmed? EURACTIV Germany’s Philipp Grüll reports.

Enemies of online hate speech bill. The French national assembly has approved the online hate speech bill at the second reading, the first article of which would force social media platforms to remove offensive content within 24 hours, failing which they would face fines of up to €1.25 million. Although it aims to make big tech companies more socially responsible, the bill’s first article would give social media platforms the power to determine what is hateful content online, which has raised questions regarding freedom of expression and non-compliance with European law.

Apple award. Tim Cook, head of the US tech giant Apple, was presented with an award by Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar in Dublin on Monday (20 January). He received the accolade in recognition of Apple’s 40 years of investment in the country. The company is currently one of the largest employers in Ireland, with 6,000 members of staff based there. During his visit, he told reporters that the global corporate tax system needs to be overhauled.

China putting pressure on Swedish media. Seven of Sweden’s eight biggest newsrooms said that in the last two years the Chinese embassy had contacted them and criticised their content on China, according to a survey conducted by Swedish national television. News outlets considered too critical have received emails and phone calls from the embassy and some journalists have been invited to discussions to learn about the official – and “correct” – state of affairs in China. The survey has now caused a diplomatic row between the two countries. EURACTIV’s Pekka Vänttinen reports.

Meanwhile, a report published yesterday from the Reuters Institute for Journalism finds that journalists are working under increasing pressure in central and eastern Europe. In this vein, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network has established a new tool that offers resources and legal assistance to journalists in the region.

UK under-18 privacy protection. The UK’s data protection authority yesterday released a set of standards tailed to help protect the privacy and safety of children online. Read more from Reuters.

On my radar.

The EU’s Digital tsar, Margrethe Vestager, appears in front of MEPs next week, on Monday in the Legal Affairs committee. Also, the Industry Committee will hold an extraordinary meeting on Tuesday, with Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton. 


What else I’m reading this week:

Subscribe to our newsletters