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EU Tech Policy Brief: March 2020 Recap

This is the March 2020 recap issue of CDT’s monthly EU Tech Policy Brief. It highlights some of the most pressing technology and internet policy matters under debate in Europe, the U.S., and internationally, and gives CDT’s perspective on them.

The European Union institutions, like the rest of the world, face unprecedented challenges arising from the coronavirus pandemic. The institutions have suspended most of their ordinary activities, and officials and legislators try to conduct their business remotely. For instance, the European Parliament has just held its first-ever plenary session using distance voting via email. During this period, CDT’s European team continues to engage on our core technology and policy issues, working with officials, MEPs, and other stakeholders.  

Managing Online Disinformation During the COVID-19 Crisis 

Governments and health authorities are trying to provide citizens with reliable COVID-19 information, and social media platforms are taking steps to promote it while also countering disinformation from a variety of sources. Companies provided information about their efforts both separately and in a joint industry statement. The European Commission launched its own initiative on fighting disinformation, and Vice-President Věra Jourová convened calls with companies participating in the Disinformation Code of Practice, urging them to fully enforce their policies and work with public authorities. 

Some commentators have made the dangerous suggestion that companies should take similarly aggressive measures to curb political disinformation. Bad information could endanger people’s lives in the current public health crisis, but political speech is constitutionally protected. One person’s robust opinion may be another’s disinformation, making the line harder to draw. These are issues that will feature in upcoming debates on the Digital Services Act.

Data Sharing for Combating COVID-19: Ensuring Strong Privacy Safeguards

Governments in Europe and across the world have taken drastic measures to contain the pandemic, some of which have significant potential implications for free expression and privacy and require serious examination. European authorities – the governments of the Lombardy region in Italy, Germany, Austria and Belgium – requested that telecommunications operators disclose mobile phone location data in aggregated and anonymised form. Other countries, such as Poland, Slovakia, and the Spanish regions of Madrid and Catalonia, created smartphone apps to track and monitor people’s movements. Ireland is expected to do the same. Monitoring and managing the virus outbreak call for far-reaching measures, but it is essential that authorities ensure appropriate safeguards such as strict limits on access to this data, how long it can be retained, and what purposes it can be used for. The challenge here is to minimise the impact of dealing with the current crisis on fundamental rights. 

Trilogue Negotiations on the Proposed ‘Terrorist Content Online Regulation’ Suspended Due to COVID-19 

Negotiations between the European Parliament, Council, and Commission on the ‘Terrorist Content Online Regulation‘ were suspended due to COVID-19. There are significant differences between the Parliament and Council positions, including on the definition of terrorist content, the scope of providers covered, removal orders, proactive measures, and the functioning of the competent authorities. CDT joined a set of civil society organisations in publishing an open letter to the representatives of Member States in the Council of the EU, restating our concerns about the potential impact of the proposed legislation on freedom of expression and about ensuring proper judicial authorisation of removal orders, among other things. It is not yet clear when the trilogue negotiations will restart.  

The European Parliament Continues Preparations of Reports on the Digital Services Act

As noted in our previous Tech Policy Brief, the European Parliament decided to produce three own-initiative (not legally binding) reports on the Digital Services Act. While EP Committee meetings are suspended, MEPs are working on draft reports, which should be ready next month. CDT is engaging with Members of Parliament on the basis of our ‘Nine Principles for Future EU Policymaking on Intermediary Liability. Our objective is to safeguard free expression, access to information, and innovation and entrepreneurship. In parallel, we are awaiting the publication of the European Commission’s stakeholder consultation on the Digital Services Act. The Commission planned to issue the consultation during March, ahead of legislative proposals due before the end of 2020. CDT will provide substantive input for the stakeholder consultation when it is opened up.  

German Parliament Moves Ahead with New Hate Crime Legislation 

This month, the German Parliament debated the ‘Draft Act on Combating Right-Wing Extremism and Hate Crime‘, which amends the Telemedia Act and the Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG). As we noted previously, the draft bill raises serious free expression and privacy concerns. If adopted, social media platforms would not only be required to assess and decide on restricting allegedly illegal content, but also to proactively report it to the Office of the Federal Criminal Police (Bundeskriminalamt – BKA) and disclose to BKA personal data of the user posting the content. That is particularly problematic, as the prospect of having personal information secretly shared with law enforcement will cause users to self-censor and refrain from addressing controversial issues online. The new rules may also tempt people to over-report other users they disagree with, with the knowledge that a notification means automatic reporting to the police. In consequence, the law would likely result in excessive reporting of content that is legal but offensive to some, and not connected to real-world threats of violence. 

European Commission Proposes ‘Right to Repair’

As part of its new Circular Economy Action Plan, the European Commission announced a ‘Right to Repair’ for electronics devices such as mobile phones, tablets, and laptops. It will push electronics manufacturers to create products that last longer and will allow consumers to access reliable information on issues such as the reparability and durability of products. The new Plan focuses on the design and production for a circular economy, with the aim to ensure that the resources used are kept in the EU economy for as long as possible. The legislation will need to be amended and approved by the EU Member States and the European Parliament before it is enacted.