Welcome to EURACTIV’s Digital Brief, your weekly update on all things digital in the EU. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.
“The US and the EU share the same values around privacy, its protection and democracies and open society, which means that together we need to write the ‘rules of the road’ as it relates to, for example, technology.”
–Gina Raimondo, US Secretary of State for Commerce
Story of the week: On Tuesday (15 June), US President Joe Biden met with European Council President Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, in an attempt to reconcile with the EU institutions after that the transatlantic relations hit an all-time low during the Trump administration. Technological cooperation was one of the main points for discussion, indicating once again the key role the tech sector has acquired in transatlantic trade and investments. The main outcome of the summit seems to be to form a tech coalition based on shared democratic values to counter China’s growing technological influence.
The change of tone and atmosphere compared to the Trump administration is impressive. The two blocs are again committed to close cooperation, certified with the establishment of the Trade and Technology Council (TTC). EU leaders put aside the usual talk about digital sovereignty to sing the praises of the transatlantic partnership. At a time when both sides want to mend relations with their historical transatlantic ally, looking outwards is also a way to avoid more controversial questions.
“The overall sentiment that you get from much of the reporting these days is that the policy priorities of both America and Europe are almost identical. That leaves out the issues that are problematic in transatlantic relations, including what’s going to happen with the Privacy Shields.” Fredrik Erixon, director of the European Centre for International Political Economy (ECIPE), told EURACTIV. Antitrust legislation and taxation also feature on the list of more controversial issues. Read more.
Don’t miss: On Tuesday (15 June) the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) issued a ruling that might have far-reaching consequences for GDPR’s one-stop shot mechanism. The CJEU specified that under specific conditions already defined in the privacy framework, national authorities might bring alleged GDPR breaches to court even for cross-border cases where they are not the leading authority. The exceptional circumstances include urgency and the limited impact of the GDPR breach in the authority’s jurisdiction. In the one-stop shop mechanism, the leading authority is determined by where the data processing organisation is legally based, and since most tech giants have their legal basis in Ireland and to a lesser extent in Luxembourg these countries had to face an overwhelming number of complaints. Civil society organisations assessed that the Court decision might finally end the deadlock over GDPR enforcement. Industry associations, however, fear this might lead to multiple legal proceedings against the same complaint. Read more.
Also this week:
- UK data adequacy decision approved by the EU Council.
- France and Germany scale up their efforts to counter disinformation ahead of the elections.
- Connecting Europe Facility 2.0 programme adopted.
- US Congress found bipartisan agreement on 5 bills to curb the power of Big Tech.
- Suspected murders of Slovak investigative reporter Ján Kuciak to stand retrial.
Digital Brief powered by ITI
What does Tuesday’s Transatlantic Summit mean for tech?
ITI applauds the EU-U.S. discussions this week and stands ready to work with policymakers to advance the transatlantic digital agenda. We urge leaders to ensure privacy and stable and reliable data flows while advancing cooperation on digital policy. Check out our priorities at itic.org.
Data & privacy
British adequacy. EU countries approved the UK data adequacy decision on Wednesday (16 June). The European Commission will now be able to adopt the decision that would enable the free flow of personal data from the EU to the UK. The European Parliament recently condemned the adequacy decision, pointing to the UK migration law that restricts data protection rights of immigrants and that has recently been ruled illegal by a UK court. As Boris Johnson already expressed his intention to change the current UK data protection framework, which is very close to GDPR, the Commission promised to revise the decision should there be any change in the UK privacy laws.
More to follow. With the UK, 13 countries have already been deemed adequate to process EU personal data. On Wednesday (16 June) the European Commission announced it launched the process for the adoption of the adequacy decision for South Korea. The negotiation between the EU and South Korea on data adequacy have lasted for several years now, and led the Asian country to align its data protection law to GDPR.
No option but to ban. An open letter signed by more than 175 civil society organizations, researchers and activists called for an “outright ban” on the use of facial and remote biometric recognition technologies that enable mass surveillance. The letter contends that “no technical or legal safeguards could ever fully eliminate the threat [these technologies] pose”, considering they are by design potentially harmful per human liberties and civil rights. The signatories hence urge governments, international organisations and private actors to put an end to the use of biometric recognition technologies in public spaces.
Brace yourself. Germany and France will go through national elections in less than one year, and both countries fear foreign powers might try to influence the voting by manipulating the online environment through cyber-attacks, fake news and disinformation offensives. Earlier this month, Paris announced the launch of an agency to fight foreign disinformation in September, somewhat replicating the East Stratcom Task Force that since 2015 operates under the European External Action Service (EEAS). The EEAS warned in March that Germany is the main target for disinformation campaigns. Another worrying trend for the largest EU economy is the soaring number of cyberattacks in the last week, as flagged German broadcaster ARD. Berlin has recently recurred to legislation to try to curb the problem, adopting the Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG). Read more.
Sustainable infrastructure. The European Council adopted the EU’s Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) 2.0 programme on Monday (14 June). The €33.71 billion programme will cover infrastructure development between 2021 and 2027, with a focus on sustainability. Over €25 billion will go to transport development, with the next largest portion allotted to the energy sector. The rest of the funds are designated for the development of digital connectivity.
Dreaming big. Emmanuel Macron set the bar for Europe’s tech ambition: 10 companies worth €100 billion by 2030. The announcement took place on Tuesday (15 June), as the French President receive “Scale-Up Europe”, a collective composed of policymakers, investors and digital entrepreneurs to promote European tech giants. Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire recently increased the funding for nourishing homegrown digital companies, raising it from €20 to €30 bn until 2022. Read more.
Research launch. On Monday (14 June), eleven public-private research partnerships were announced, an investment which will total €22 billion over the next seven years. The partnerships, which cover topics from batteries to the cloud, are the first of 49 proposed by Horizon Europe, the EU’s research and innovation funding programme. Read the work programme for the Digital, Industry and Space cluster here.
Green Belt and Road. G7 leaders agreed a plan to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative at the Summit in Cornwall, UK on Sunday (13 June). The “Build Back Better for the World” programme will channel funds into green infrastructure projects in the hopes of competing with China’s trillion-dollar investment in construction contracts around the world. To facilitate this, the US also announced the revival of the “Blue Dot Network”, designed to spur investment in infrastructure by certifying projects that meet specific standards in areas such as sustainability, inclusivity and transparency.
Antitrust across the aisle. A bipartisan coalition of US lawmakers introduced five major antitrust bills in the House of Representatives on Friday (11 June), intended to curb the power and size of Big Tech. With measures not dissimilar to some of those found in the EU’s own Digital Markets Act, the bills could serve to prevent these tech giants from crowding their smaller counterparts out of the market. While it remains to be seen whether these bills make it into law, there is an evident appetite for antitrust legislation, with one US senator indicating that work is already underway to introduce companion bills in Congress’s upper chamber. The appointment of Big Tech critic Lina Khan as Chair of the Federal Trade Commission on Tuesday (15 June) also testifies the growing consensus in the US elite to rein in Big Tech.
A halt to cookie removal. The UK’s Competition and Market Authority (CMA) announced that it had secured commitments from Google in relation to its concerns about the company’s planned removal of third-party cookies from Chrome. The CMA opened an investigation into Google’s so-called “Privacy Sandbox” initiative in January. If accepted, the commitments will be legally binding and will give the CMA a say in the development of the plans.
Verdicts overturned. On Tuesday (15 June), the Slovak Supreme Court overturned last year’s not guilty verdicts of two people suspected of the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová in 2018. The court ruled that the original trial of businessman Marian Kočner and his associate Alena Zsúszová had failed to account for the full evidence and circumstances. Three people have already been sentenced for their participation in the killings. At the time of his death, Kuciak had been investigating high-level political corruption in Slovakia. The killings sparked massive protests, leading then Prime Minister Robert Fico to resign from office.
Calling all journalists. The European Commission has published its first call for journalism partnership, with the aim of enhancing cross-border collaboration and spurring systemic change throughout Europe’s media ecosystems. The €7.6 million grant, the first in a series funded by the Creative Europe programme, is intended to facilitate the exchange of knowledge and technical expertise, and increase innovation and creativity amongst media professionals in the EU.
Biden-Brussels pledge. Following the EU-US summit in Brussels on Tuesday (15 June), the two parties issued a joint statement pledging to support free and open internet, cultivate responsible behaviour in cyberspace and tackle disinformation. They also committed to “support the ability of civil society and independent media to operate freely” and “protect and defend journalists in order to hold government accountable.” Just days before the summit, the Media Freedom Rapid Response project published an open letter addressed to the US president, urging Biden to address the deterioration of media freedom in Poland and Hungary.
A new front-runner. China has unveiled its latest AI model, the Wu Dao 2.0 which, according to its developers, is “ten times more powerful” than what was previously considered state-of-the-art technology. Its capabilities include writing poetry, creating realistic images from descriptions and understanding spoken language. In the same week, the US announced the launch of its new national AI taskforce, which will advise on the creation of AI research infrastructure.
Algorithm vs algorithm. German foreign minister Heiko Maas told a DW documentary that a global AI arms race is already in motion, a warning echoed in a recent US national security report. Autonomous weapons are already being used in conflicts and this looks set to continue as militaries compete to get ahead of each other. But as the application of AI grows, so does unease over what this could mean for warfare; for almost a decade, a coalition of countries and NGOs has been pushing for an international ban treaty to prevent the use of “killer robots.”
VW data breach. Volkswagen admitted in a letter on Friday (11 June) the data breach of more than 3.3 million North American customers. At the origin of the leak is a vendour used by the German carmaker, which left the personal data unprotected on the internet for almost two years. The data, collected for sales and marketing between 2014 and 2019, included mostly names, addresses and phone numbers. However, more sensitive information such as loan eligibility, drivers’ licence numbers, dates of birth and Social Security numbers were also left unsecured.
Huawei changes gear. Despite previous denials, Chinese tech company Huawei has confirmed its shift towards smart car technology. An executive told an industry conference this week that the company plans to have developed driverless technology by 2025, and speculation is rife that with the launch of its new Harmony OS, a Huawei-branded smart car could be the next product unveiled. Already a giant in smartphones and 5G, Huawei began selling SERES electric cars in its stores earlier this year and last month broadened its smart car partnership with state-owned Chongqing Changan Automobile Co Ltd.
On my radar:
On Monday (21 June) a public hearing will take place in the European Parliament’s Internal Market (IMCO) committee on both the DSA and the DMA. This is the first public discussion of the two flagship proposals in the European Parliament, hence it might help unveil where consensus and controversy will emerge between the different political groups.
The European Data Journalism network is organising a series of webinars for data protection in journalism. The next one will take place on Tuesday (22 June) and it’s focused on fighting disinformation. Find the webinars programme here.
What else I’m reading this week:
- Cryptocurrencies seem to be going through a new chaotic phase (VICE).
- The flying car might not be limited to Sci-Fi for much longer, as its industry might be taking off (New York Times).
- Attempts to control the media have changed in the digital environment, hence the issue of media capture has become much more complicated (International Centre for Journalists).