By Joanna Plucinska, with help from Laurens Cerulus, Mark Scott, Rosemary Belson, Cynthia Kroet and Nicholas Hirst | Send tips to email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org | View in your browser
**POLITICO Pro Morning Tech newsletter is free in partnership with Web Summit, where Mark Scott, our Chief Technology Correspondent, and Ryan Heath, Editor of Brussels Playbook, are reporting from this week. Have you heard of our POLITICO Pro premium news service? Contact us to learn more here.**
WANTED: THE ELUSIVE FAKE NEWS FIX: Fake news is all the rage — it’s even been named “word” of the year. But like every overused term, not all fake news is the same, and the difference between spreading straight-out online falsities to trolling public officials through swarms of social media bots must be understood if we’re ever going to get ahead of this (relatively new) digital phenomenon.
The multiple angles of the fake news agenda were on show at the Web Summit on Wednesday, with panels and conversations aplenty about how such digital misinformation has become a byword for the potential manipulation of democratic elections from the 2016 U.S. presidential election to the recent nationwide poll in Kenya.
Everyone was keen to show their dismay about the impact of fake news. Case in point, Ann Mettler, head of European Political Strategy Centre, a European Commission think-tank, told the 15,000-seat main stage: “Fake news is in the process of eroding democracy,” then adding: “We’ll be looking into if tech companies must be held responsible as publishers.”
What’s missing is a coherent strategy on what to do about it. Tech companies — already in hot water over how their digital platforms may have spread misinformation, hate speech and other online nastiness — are fighting a rearguard action, hoping beyond hope that regulators will eventually move on to different targets. It goes without saying, though, that’s unlikely to happen.
Yet politicians aren’t exactly basking in glory. The Commission’s internal team (known as East Stratcom) aimed at policing Russian misinformation targeted at the EU is severely understaffed and woefully underfunded. With fewer than 20 people, the unit is little more than window dressing — well-intentioned as it is — rather than a real deterrent. Other activities by national intelligence and security agencies remain cloaked in mystery.
Where does that leave us in the fight against fake news? The good is almost everyone is in agreement that it’s a legitimate threat, and one that’s fast evolving into a multi-headed enemy, both hard to define and even harder to combat. The bad is we’ve entered a blame game where policymakers and the private sector jab each other for not doing enough, leading to an inertia that leaves the average EU and U.S. citizen, and voters worldwide, in a precarious position.
And that certainly isn’t fake news.
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Hello and welcome to Morning Tech. Web Summit is (still) on in Lisbon today. Amazon’s CTO Werner Vogels, Europol’s head honcho Rob Wainwright and Google’s Matt Brittin are just some of today’s speakers. Read the agenda for more. A hearing in the Netflix case will take place at the European Court of Justice today. Read Nicholas Hirst’s analysis for a refresher. Digital Vice President Andrus Ansip is still in Budapest at the ICT Proposer’s Day. Digital Commissioner Mariya Gabriel is scheduled to meet stakeholders from the European Organisation for Astronomical Research.
VESTAGER PRIVACY HARBINGER: The longer Europe’s competition boss Margrethe Vestager has spent rummaging through the business models of the large tech companies, the more concerned she has become about privacy. That skepticism may come as a surprise given her proficient use of tech to project her political personality — she is known as the “Queen of Twitter” in Denmark. But as Nicholas reports online or below, that suspicion is increasingly pervading what she does — from her personal use of technology to the casework undertaken by her services — and it features largely in almost every major speech she has given recently, from Switzerland to New York.
CONSUMER PROTECTION NEEDS TO GO GLOBAL: Europe’s consumers need more robust protection when they shop on global online marketplaces, according to a study commissioned by European consumer organization BEUC and German consumer organization vzbv. While the EU has strong consumer protection rules, European consumers could be in a rights wasteland of sorts when they shop on online marketplaces operating outside of the EU bloc. The report flags two big issues: A lack of information about products before they’re purchased and no substantial or effective redress options, like international dispute resolution or mediation. Read the report online to find out more. Potential solutions include setting global voluntary standards but those are hard to enforce. Read the full analysis online.
THE POWER OF THREE: POLITICO sat down with three leading lobbyists on technology: Tech industry lobby DigitalEurope’s Cecilia Bonefeld-Dahl, telecom lobby ETNO’s Lise Fuhr and mobile lobby GSMA’s Afke Schaart. Telecoms reform and e-Privacy Regulation were at the top of the lobby chiefs’ agenda, (Stay tuned for more from Laurens’ chat.) but today we’re bringing you the highlights on the broader topics du jour:
On Vestager shaping Europe’s image on tech abroad:
Fuhr: If you look into the 5G world, it might be necessary to consolidate the industry more than it is today. So in that respect, she might be slowing things down, I don’t know.
Bonefeld-Dahl: For us it’s really important that we keep open, keep the same spirit as an open economy in general but of course with respect to the rules and legislation that we have.
On which matters more, Washington or Brussels:
Bonefeld-Dahl: We [in Brussels] are first movers, for good and for bad, in regulating on digital. Right now, [Brussels] is the capital for digital transformation — for good and for bad.
Fuhr: If you look at the investment, for every euro you invest here, you invest two in the U.S. You have a disconnect between what we want, where the money goes and where the regulation goes.
Schaart: It is not all coming from Europe and the U.S. right now. We see the uptake and the innovation taking place in Africa and in Asia.
On #MeToo in Brussels:
Schaart: I think it is good, that it is out in the open. And it is for men and women, of course.
Bonefeld-Dahl: I hope we’ll have a couple of cases of consequence, because that’s normally what moves things forward.
MONEY ON MESSENGER: You will soon be able to send money through Facebook Messenger in Europe, sort of. Facebook announced its peer-to-peer payments service will be available, but only in the U.K. and France. The rest of us will have to wait!
JOUROVÁ: TAKE DATA PROTECTION SERIOUSLY: Věra Jourová, EU commissioner for justice, addressed privacy wonks at the International Association of Privacy Professionals’ huddle in Brussels on Wednesday. Her message: Companies, stop faffing about, the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation is coming.
— “Many companies, including the big players in Silicon Valley, tell me that they are ready. But there are also many others, especially SMEs, who are not. I see it as my duty to reach out to those that are somehow lost.”
— “Increasingly, countries around the world are adopting new data protection laws. Europe is setting the standard in this field. And the more our systems align, the easier it will be to ensure global data flows.”
— “Later this month, I am also opening a dialogue [on an adequacy decision] with Korea, which is also developing a data protection systems similar to the European one.”
THE TECHIES WE LOVE TO HATE: Silicon Valley in 2017 is the Wall Street of the 1980s, according to the Guardian. Brilliant jerks with too much money, rampant sexism and bravado are the common traits — and some techies are starting to feel uncomfortable with that image.
UBER’S THE NEW NICE GUY ON THE BLOCK: Uber wants to do the right thing, according to the company’s newly minted cultural norms. “As we move from an era of growth at all costs to one of responsible growth, our culture needs to evolve. Rather than ditching everything, I’m focused on preserving what works while quickly changing what doesn’t,” Uber’s CEO Dara Khosrowshahi wrote in a blog post. Some of the new values include: celebrating differences, building globally and living locally, perseverance and valuing ideas over hierarchy. Read the post for more.
Speaking of Uber, flying taxis: More from Uber at the Web Summit in Lisbon, where Chief Product Officer Jeff Holden announced that the company has struck a deal with NASA to develop software for managing “flying taxi” routes in the air along the lines of ride-hailing services it has pioneered on the ground. Uber would begin testing four-passenger, 200-mile-per hour flying taxi services across Los Angeles in 2020.
DATA-ASSISTED IDENTIFICATION: On Wednesday, permanent representatives of EU member countries agreed to new reforms to the Schengen Information System. Facial images and DNA profiles may be used as identification tools by participating countries to help fight terrorism and serious crime.The negotiating mandate would allow Europol complete access to data and terrorism-related activity information from member countries.To boost border security and migration management, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency could also access alert categories in the IT system.
INDONESIA’S CENSORSHIP EXPANDS: Indonesia communications ministry officials announced Wednesday plans to employ an automated system to block obscene content, Reuters reports. The move comes in the wake of Indonesia’s threat to block WhatsApp over obscene GIFs. Starting in January, the system will crawl the internet to alert inappropriate material and foreign-owned sites with contentious content will be immediately blocked.
POTENTIAL COMMUNICATIONS CHIP CLASH: Broadcom could face fierce competition from Intel, even if its bid for Qualcomm goes through. Demand for communications chips is on the rise as more are being used for connected cars and mobile technology, Reuters reports.
EX-YAHOO CEO BLAMES IT ON THE RUSSIANS: Former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer apologized on Wednesday for the company’s massive data breaches, blaming Russian agents for at least one in testimony to the U.S. senate commerce committee. More from Reuters.
Morning Tech wouldn’t be possible without Nirvi Shah and Zoya Sheftalovich.
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*** POLITICO Pro Article ***
Margrethe Vestager, technophobe
— By Nicholas Hirst
If you want an indication of how Margrethe Vestager views Silicon Valley’s tech giants, look no further than the way she uses their services.
Europe’s competition commissioner uses Facebook and Twitter for work, but she keeps her accounts carefully scrubbed of personal information. She has installed WhatsApp on her phone but blocked the app from compiling a list of her friends. “I don’t allow them to trawl my contact book,” is how she put it in an interview with POLITICO. When communicating with friends and family, she prefers to use SMS text messages.
She has not opened a Gmail account and makes a point of using alternatives to Google Search, such as its competitor Bing or DuckDuckGo, a privacy-friendly search engine that claims not to track its users. She regularly wipes her devices’ browsing history and deletes the cookies installed by internet firms like Google or Facebook to track users online.
This obsession with digital hygiene — by one of the most powerful people in the world of tech — reveals a sense of suspicion that has only grown during her time in Brussels spent rummaging under the bonnets of large internet firms.
“The more I have reflected, the more private I have become,” Vestager said.
Her mounting misgivings are also visible in the focus of her work and in her public statements.
At the podium, she rarely misses an opportunity to warn of Silicon Valley’s intrusions into people’s private lives.
In an address at a film festival in Switzerland in August, she compared the behavior of companies like Google and Facebook — whose business models involve the harvesting and use of personal data — to the protagonist of the Bulgarian film “Godless“: “A nurse whose only interest in her patients is selling their identity cards on the black market.”
The following month, delivering a TED talk in New York, she argued that careful oversight of tech companies is necessary for the smooth functioning of the online economy.
“No one’s going to agree to hand over their medical data, or step into a car that’s driven by an algorithm, unless they trust the companies they’re dealing with,” she said. “And that trust isn’t always there. Today, for example, less than a quarter of Europeans trust online businesses to protect their personal information.”
Vestager’s most high-profile cases have so far concerned tax practices (such as the €13 billion tax bill she doled out to Apple in August 2016) or unfair competitive practices (like her €2.4 billion slapdown of Google shopping in June).
But she has shown a growing interest in a career-defining case tackling the way companies collect and use personal data. Officials in her department say her team has pushed hard for them to come up with cases in the area.
“We need to understand what happens when data is the prime currency of a company,” she said in an interview last year. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Eventually, consumers will have to pay.”
In December 2016, she threatened to derail Microsoft’s $26 billion acquisition of LinkedIn, over concerns that the U.S. company could use its dominance on computer desktops to prevent the emergence of a competitor to the professional social network that would offer its users better privacy terms.
In May 2017, she sanctioned Facebook for misleading officials during the review of its $22 billion acquisition of WhatsApp over what it would be able to do with the company’s user data.
Vestager’s mistrust of Big Tech is all the more remarkable for the role social media played in her political career. In Denmark, before her move to Brussels, she was a social media pioneer, using Twitter to set the political agenda during her rise from leader of a small party to kingmaker in the Danish parliament and the country’s deputy prime minister.
Journalists nicknamed her “the Twitter Queen,” according to Benjamin Rud Elberth, a Danish expert in political social media. “In Denmark, we say that ‘news doesn’t break, it tweets,'” he said. “Vestager was very often the main tweeter of the news, setting the tone and framing early, controlling the way the media wrote about the [issue of the day].”
On her arrival in the European capital, she declared herself a keen online shopper. “It is very practical because online the shops are always open!” she said.
At a technology conference in London last week, she said she had so many apps on her iPhone that she often can’t find the one she wants to use. Her solution: “I color organize my apps. It looks good, and you can remember where they are.”
As her profile as one of the tech world’s biggest foils has grown, Vestager has taken pains to blunt the sharpness of her criticism, insisting she has nothing against digital technology per say.
“I remember how it was to try to find something on the internet before the invention of the search machine,” she told POLITICO. “Oh, my God, you never got there.” At the conference in London, she described herself as a “techno-optimist.”
In the meantime, she continues to use social media to project her message and brand within and beyond the Brussels bubble. She is one of few commissioners to personally manage her own Twitter account.
Vestager’s stream of tweets takes her 223,000 followers behind the scenes of her job (and only her job): the travel, the meetings, the jokes and the occasional reflection, sometimes vaguely political, sometimes not.
At the end of a press conference at the Lisbon Web Summit earlier this week, she displayed what has become one of her signature social media moves: turning her iPhone on the press pack to tweet a picture of the microphones and cameras pointed at her.
Mark Scott contributed reporting.