Europe fines Google another €1.5 billion after belated Android concession

US search giant Google has received yet another fine from the European Commission, this time for abusing its dominant position in online advertising.

Specifically this ruling refers to ads served against Google search results embedded in third party websites. The EC doesn’t like the way Google used to go about this and, having reviewed loads of historical contracts between Google and these other websites, found the following:

  • Starting in 2006, Google included exclusivity clauses in its contracts. This meant that publishers were prohibited from placing any search adverts from competitors on their search results pages. The decision concerns publishers whose agreements with Google required such exclusivity for all their websites.
  • As of March 2009, Google gradually began replacing the exclusivity clauses with so-called “Premium Placement” clauses. These required publishers to reserve the most profitable space on their search results pages for Google’s adverts and request a minimum number of Google adverts. As a result, Google’s competitors were prevented from placing their search adverts in the most visible and clicked on parts of the websites’ search results pages.
  • As of March 2009, Google also included clauses requiring publishers to seek written approval from Google before making changes to the way in which any rival adverts were displayed. This meant that Google could control how attractive, and therefore clicked on, competing search adverts could be.

EC google ad graphic

Taken at face value this would appear to be a clear abuse of Google’s dominant position and it seems to have got off pretty lightly, since it got a much bigger fine for abusing Android’s dominant position last year, on which more below. The EC has been pretty consistent in its position on dominant US tech players deliberately seeking to restrict competition, just ask Microsoft and Intel, so none of this can have come as a surprise to Google.

“Today the Commission has fined Google €1.49 billion for illegal misuse of its dominant position in the market for the brokering of online search adverts,” said Commissioner in charge of competition policy Margrethe Vestager. “Google has cemented its dominance in online search adverts and shielded itself from competitive pressure by imposing anti-competitive contractual restrictions on third-party websites. This is illegal under EU antitrust rules. The misconduct lasted over 10 years and denied other companies the possibility to compete on the merits and to innovate – and consumers the benefits of competition.”

As the quote indicates, Google isn’t doing this anymore, but only packed it in once the EC flagged it up in 2016, so that’s still a decade of naughtiness. For some reason Google also chose today to show some belated contrition for one of the things it got fined for last year: forcing Android OEMs to preinstall Google Search and the Chrome browser.

In a blog post amusingly entitled Supporting choice and competition in Europe, Google SVP of Global Affairs Kent Walker started by stressing there’s nothing he loves more than healthy, thriving markets. Having said that he went on to make it clear that its most recent move to improve competition was taken solely to get the EC off its back.

“After the Commission’s July 2018 decision, we changed the licensing model for the Google apps we build for use on Android phones, creating new, separate licenses for Google Play, the Google Chrome browser, and for Google Search,” wrote Walker. “In doing so, we maintained the freedom for phone makers to install any alternative app alongside a Google app.

“Now we’ll also do more to ensure that Android phone owners know about the wide choice of browsers and search engines available to download to their phones. This will involve asking users of existing and new Android devices in Europe which browser and search apps they would like to use.”

How touching. Presumably today was some kind of deadline for Google to comply or else. The matter of browser choice is highly reminiscent of Europe’s case against Microsoft for bundling Internet Explorer with Windows. The prime beneficiary of that was, you guessed it, Google, which now accounts for around two thirds of European desktop browser share (see chart), achieved through merit rather than cheating. How sad then, so see history repeating itself on mobile.

So that takes the total amount Europe has fined Google to €8.25 billion. In response to a question after her announcement (below) Vestager revealed the EC has some kind of fine ceiling of 10% of annual revenues so, since Google brought in around €120 billion last year that still leaves plenty of room for further fines if Google keeps getting funny ideas. Incidentally she also revealed that the fines get distributed to member countries, not trousered by the EC itself, which is reassuring.

Source: StatCounter Global Stats – Browser Market Share

Europe cools internet monopoly rhetoric

Almost every politician around the world is currently using Silicon Valley as a metaphoric punching bag, but the European Commission will not be drawn into the monopolies debate.

While 2020 Presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren has painted a target on the backs on the internet giants, Europe has once again proven it will not be drawn into making such short-sighted and shallow promises. Warren is effectively warming up for the world’s biggest popularity contest, and perhaps hasn’t considered the long-term realities of the dismantling of companies such as Facebook and Google.

Speaking at the South by Southwest festival in Austin (thank you Recode for the transcript), Margrethe Vestager, the European Commissioner for Competition, made a very reasonable and measured statement.

“We’re dealing with private property, businesses that are built and invested in and become successful because of their innovation,” said Vestager.

“So, to break up a company, to break up private property, would be very far-reaching. And you would need to have a very strong case that it would produce better results for consumers in the marketplace than what you could do with sort of more mainstream tools.”

Vestager’s point is simple. Don’t punish a company because of its success. Don’t make rash decisions unless there is evidence the outcome will be better than the status quo. While the fence is proving to be very comfortable, it is a logical place to sit now.

Following up with the European Commission press team, Telecoms.com was told the Commission does not have an official position when it comes to breaking up the internet monopolies. Vestager’s comments are representative of the Commission, and it will evaluate each case on its own merit. Effectively, the breaking up the monopolies is a last resort, and will only be done so in extreme circumstances.

This position is supported by a recent report, put together for HM Treasury in the UK by former Chief Economist to President Obama, Professor Jason Furman. Furman suggests new rules and departments need to be created for digital society, but monopolies, when regulated and governed appropriately, can be good for the progression of products, services and the economy overall.

This will of course be an unpopular opinion, but it makes sense. Sometimes there simply isn’t the wealth to share around. Monopolies are perhaps needed to create efficiencies and economies of scale to ensure progress is made at a suitable pace. However, the right regulatory framework needs to be in place to ensure this dominant position is not abused. A catch-all position should not be welcomed.

This is where the European Commission has been playing a notable role. Numerous times over the last few years, technology giants have been punished for creating and abusing dominant market positions, take Google as an example with Android antitrust violations last June, though it has not gone as far as breaking up these empires. The key here is creating a framework which encourages growth across the board but does not punish success.

Some would argue success in the pursuit of this delicately balanced equation has been incredibly varied, but this should not form the foundation of rash decisions and potential irreversible actions. Big is not necessarily bad.

This is the marquee promise of Senator Elizabeth Warren. In attempting to woo the green-eyed contradictory wannabee capitalists of Middle America, the Presidential contender has promised to split up the internet giants. The complexities and realities of this promise do not seem to have been thoroughly thought out, and it does seem to be a shallow attempt to lure the favour of those who seek fortunes but are unable to congratulate those who have found them.

That said, there are Presidential candidates who are suggesting good ideas. Senator Amy Klobuchar has suggested companies who monetize data through relationships with third-parties should be taxed. This is somewhat of a radical idea, but we do quite like the sound of it.

Firstly, for those companies who say they are collecting data to ‘improve customer experience’, there would be no impact. If the data is being used to enhance current or create new services, and therefore kept in-house, then fair enough. However, if the company is moving data around the digital ecosystem, monetizing personal information, why not place a levy on this type of activity. It might just encourage these companies to be more responsible when more scrutiny is being placed on these transactions.

This is the challenge we are all facing nowadays; the digital economy is a different beast and needs to be tamed using different techniques, regulations and practices. We all know this, but we haven’t actually figured out how to do it.

This is why we kind of like the non-committal, hands-off approach from the European Commission. For an organization which usually likes to run wild with the red-tape, this seems to be a much more sensible approach. Over regulating nowadays could create a patch-work from hell which would only have to be undone. It might seem like a cop-out, but governments should let business be business, while casting a watchful eye over developments.

When no-one really knows how the future is going to evolve, regulation is needed to hold companies accountable and protections are needed to safeguard the consumer. But rash decisions and ridiculous promises are the last thing anyone wants.

EU set to proceed with controversial new online copyright rules

Inevitably the EU Copyright Directive, complete with its widely despised Articles 11 and 13, is continuing its glacial progress along the European rubber-stamping conveyor belt.

Last month we reported that the directive appeared to have hit a road bump, but this turned out to be a fleeting inconvenience, resolved by the most token of concessions. Yesterday both the European Commission and European Parliament announced a breakthrough in the fraught negotiations, from which a miraculous consensus was reached.

“To finally have modern copyright rules for the whole of EU is a major achievement that was long overdue,” said VP for the Digital Single Market Andrus Ansip. “The negotiations were difficult, but what counts in the end is that we have a fair and balanced result that is fit for a digital Europe: the freedoms and rights enjoyed by internet users today will be enhanced, our creators will be better remunerated for their work, and the internet economy will have clearer rules for operating and thriving.”

“This deal is an important step towards correcting a situation which has allowed a few companies to earn huge sums of money without properly remunerating the thousands of creatives and journalists whose work they depend on,” said MEP Axel Voss, who seems to speak for the European Parliament on this stuff.

“At the same time, this deal contains numerous provisions which will guarantee that the internet remains a space for free expression. These provisions were not in themselves necessary because the directive will not be creating any new rights for rights holders. Yet we listened to the concerns raised and chose to doubly guarantee the freedom of expression. The ‘meme’, the ‘gif’, the ‘snippet’ are now more protected than ever before.”

As you can see both spokespeople are doing a heavy sell on the directive because they know it’s unpopular. Not that it really matters because In place of actual democratic accountability, the EU has a self-reinforcing system of largely opaque bodies. This is apparently done to create the impression of rigorous due process but it’s very rare for the real power in Brussels – the European Commission – to receive any significant internal resistance once it has decided on a course of action.

The most unpopular part of the Directive is Article 13, which requires sites to either seek licenses for, or pre-emptively block the upload of, any material that may be copyright protected, or face the consequences of any breach themselves. Close second in terms of public derision is Article 11, which will require a license to reproduce all but the shortest snippets of written content and may apply to things like link previews.

Appropriately enough none of the announcements linked directly to the test of the agreement, but once more we indebted to MEP Julia Reda, who quickly blogged on the matter. “The history of this law is a shameful one,” she wrote. “From the very beginning, the purpose of Articles 11 and 13 was never to solve clearly-defined issues in copyright law with well-assessed measures, but to serve powerful special interests, with hardly any concern for the collateral damage caused.”

The special interests she referred to are big publishers, who she reckons have lobbied the EU to protect their traditional revenue streams. This theory would appear to be supported by the fact that smaller publishers and rights holders seem far less keen on the new rules. Reda, who you can see alongside a small number of other dissenting MEPs in the video below, thinks the Directive can still be stopped if the European Parliament can be persuaded to oppose it but this seems like a forlorn hope.

Zoey Forbes, Technology, Media and Entertainment Associate at law firm Harbottle & Lewis, offers another perspective. “On the surface, the agreed text was an early Valentine’s Day present for creatives and the wider content industry,” she said. “Copyright holders will receive additional revenues from the use of their works online as well as greater protection from online copyright infringement.

“However, as with all things, the devil is in the detail and some stakeholders feel the safeguards offered to the tech industry have not only watered down the EU’s original objectives but will actually leave copyright holders worse off. Conversely, the tech industry and those advocating for freedom of expression are not appeased by these safeguards and continue to oppose the directive on an ideological level.”

The EU is positioning all this as protecting the European little guy from voracious Silicon Valley giants who profit from traffic driven by third party content. There is some merit to that position, but it doesn’t seem to have consulted many little guys, nor thought more deeply about the mechanics of the internet, which rely heavily on the viral sharing of stuff. It’s not at all clear that the stated beneficiaries of this set of rules will, in fact, benefit, but the EU supertanker isn’t about to change course over such minor concerns.

 

Europe set to impose upload filters on nearly all websites

After a brief interruption it’s business as usual for the EU Copyright Directive, with Article 13 set to go ahead and oblige websites to adopt burdensome content filters.

Last month we reported that Article 13 of the directive, which seeks to block the upload of any content that could possibly infringe copyright, was being held up by disagreement among some members of one of the many layers of eurocracy required to rubber-stamp new trans-continental laws.

Well as is so often the case in Brussels, a token compromise was reached that allowed everyone to do what they’re told while offering what minimal face-saving they needed to salve their capitulation. Once more the best information and analysis on this latest development comes from Pirate Party MEP Julia Reda.

Reda reports that everyone was pretty much in favour of insisting on the use of algorithmic upload filters intended to prevent copyrighted material even being uploaded in the first place without a license fee first being paid. The only sticking point concerned exemptions for smaller websites, to stop innovation being suffocated by the cost of all this fresh red tape.

The solution that apparently placated even the most fervent SMB champion was to spare websites this extra hassle so long as they’ve been going for less than three years, have an annual turnover of less than €10 million and have fewer than five million monthly unique visitors. To be clear if any single one of these apply then it’s upload filter time, so since nearly all websites are older than three that means pretty much all of them. Nice exemption.

As Reda concludes, this is EU corporatism being imposed on the internet by favouring the largest websites, for whom the additional bureaucratic burden is much less significant, and thus discouraging innovation. It will probably result in blanket blocks on European users by non-European sites that don’t feel like installing upload filters.

She calls on people to pressure their local candidates in the forthcoming European elections to oppose this move but we fear she’s being naïve. The European Union considers the democratic will of its constituents to be at best irrelevant and at worst antagonistic to its corporate interests and prospective members of European parliament know it.

Europe pats US internet giants on the head for being good censors

In just the third year of the EU’s Orwellian online speech purge it looks like the major platforms are largely submitting to its will.

The EU Code of Conduct on countering illegal hatespeech online has been going since 2016 as “an effort to respond to the proliferation of racist and xenophobic hate speech online.” The EU seemed to have decided that if you stop people saying horrid things online then you’ll also stop them having horrid thoughts and doing horrid things.

To implement this theory the EU needed the cooperation of the major platforms run by Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and Google. It will have done the usual thing of threatening vindictive regulatory action if they didn’t comply so sensibly they have. They are now assessing 89% of content flagged as hatespeech within 24 hours and removing 72% of it.

Definitions of hatespeech seem to be pretty consistent across the EU, which is presumably no coincidence. Here’s the European Commission’s one:

Certain forms of conduct as outlined below, are punishable as criminal offences:

  • public incitement to violence or hatred directed against a group of persons or a member of such a group defined on the basis of race, colour, descent, religion or belief, or national or ethnic origin;
  • the above-mentioned offence when carried out by the public dissemination or distribution of tracts, pictures or other material;
  • publicly condoning, denying or grossly trivialising crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes as defined in the Statute of the International Criminal Court (Articles 6, 7 and 8) and crimes defined in Article 6 of the Charter of the International Military Tribunal, when the conduct is carried out in a manner likely to incite violence or hatred against such a group or a member of such a group.

Instigating, aiding or abetting in the commission of the above offences is also punishable.

With regard to these offences listed, EU countries must ensure that they are punishable by:

  • effective, proportionate and dissuasive penalties;
  • a term of imprisonment of a maximum of at least one year.

With regard to legal persons, the penalties must be effective, proportionate and dissuasive and must consist of criminal or non-criminal fines. In addition, legal persons may be punished by:

  • exclusion from entitlement to public benefits or aid;
  • temporary or permanent disqualification from the practice or commercial activities;
  • being placed under judicial supervision;
  • a judicial winding-up order.

The initiation of investigations or prosecutions of racist and xenophobic offences must not depend on a victim’s report or accusation.

Hate crime

In all cases, racist or xenophobic motivation shall be considered to be an aggravating circumstance or, alternatively, the courts must be empowered to take such motivation into consideration when determining the penalties to be applied.

If you couldn’t be bothered to read all that, the TL;DR is that you can’t say horrid things online if race, nationality, belief, etc comes into it, or even join in if someone else does. If you do all sorts of punishments will be inflicted on you, including a year in prison (as maximum of at least one year? That doesn’t make sense). The victim of such hatespeech doesn’t even need to have accused you of anything and the court reserves the right to determine your motivation for doing stuff.

“Today’s evaluation shows that cooperation with companies and civil society brings results,” said Andrus Ansip, Vice-President for the Digital Single Market. “Companies are now assessing 89% of flagged content within 24 hours, and promptly act to remove it when necessary. This is more than twice as much as compared to 2016. More importantly, the Code works because it respects freedom of expression. The internet is a place people go to share their views and find out information at the click of a button. Nobody should feel unsafe or threatened due to illegal hateful content remaining online.”

“Illegal hate speech online is not only a crime, it represents a threat to free speech and democratic engagement,” said Vĕra Jourová, Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality. “In May 2016, I initiated the Code of conduct on online hatespeech, because we urgently needed to do something about this phenomenon. Today, after two and a half years, we can say that we found the right approach and established a standard throughout Europe on how to tackle this serious issue, while fully protecting freedom of speech.”

Those statements are perfectly Orwellian, insisting as they do that censorship is free speech. The really chilling thing is that they clearly believe that imposing broad and vague restrictions on online speech is vital to protect the freedom of nice, compliant non-hateful people. The EC even had the gall to berate the platforms for not offering enough feedback to those it censors. This could easily be resolved with a blanket statement along the lines of “We’re just following orders.”

As you can see from the tweet below extracted from the full report, the types of things that qualify as hatespeech have increased since the above definition was written. This kind of mission creep is made all the more inevitable by the complicity of Silicon Valley and complete absence of dissenting media, so there’s every reason to assume the definition of hatespeech will continue to expand indefinitely.

 

France takes on Apple in tax dispute… and wins

The French government has bagged a win in its quest to hold Silicon Valley accountable to fair and reasonable taxation rules with €500 million secured from Apple.

Apple has confirmed to Reuters it has settled a dispute over taxes due to the French purses over a 10-year period, though local newspapers are suggesting the figure is roughly €500 million. France is leaking the European battle against the slippery accountants of the internet giants, though whether this has any knock-on effect across the rest of the bloc remains to be seen. We suspect there will be a mixed reaction.

“As a multinational company, Apple is regularly audited by fiscal authorities around the world,” Apple France said in a statement to Reuters. “The French tax administration recently concluded a multi-year audit on the company’s French accounts, and those details will be published in our public accounts.”

The taxation strategies of the internet giants have become infamous over the years, as many feel the frat-boys of the technology industry are taking advantage. With such incredible revenues, governments will be keen to hold these companies accountable and France is showing that it can actually be done.

Over the last few months, the European Commission has been tabling various different ideas to ensure the internet giants pay a fair and reasonable tax rate. A 3% sales tax on all revenues generated in the specific territories looked to be the best option moving forward, but the power of the bloc proved to be its downfall; getting 28 nations to agree to the same idea was never going to be easy.

With countries like Ireland and Luxembourg building successful economies around enabling tax havens, and other countries such as Sweden giving birth to companies which benefit from the rules, some were always going to offer opposition. Why would these countries want to be the architect of their own downfall?

What this victory for France shows the rest of the bloc is that results can be achieved by going alone. Some of the other critics of the creative taxation strategies of the internet giants, such as the UK and Germany, may well move forward aggressively.

The residents of Silicon Valley, and some in Washington DC, might suggest US companies are victims of sticky-fingered bureaucrats, though it is difficult to have sympathy for companies which have become experts at finding and widening gaps in regulations.

The big question is who is next on France’s hit list.

China 5G ambitions might hit a Brussels speed bump

The boresome bureaucrats of Brussels have finally gotten back from lunch and there might just be a 5G ban for Chinese companies on the menu before too long.

According to Reuters, the EU officials are considering drawing up new rules which would effectively ban any participation from Chinese companies in the up-coming 5G bonanza. Although there have certainly been some dissenting voices across the bloc over the last couple of months, a bloc-wide ban would be scaling up the anti-China rhetoric more than a few incremental steps.

Officials would almost certainly state any changes would be made for the greater good and are not targeted at a single nation, but that statement is increasingly difficult to swallow. There are a couple of different strategies to achieve the anti-China goal, but the Brussels brunch brigade will certainly have to get a move on if they are to make an impact.

5G is just around the corner and the groundwork is being laid for the lean, mean networks. Purchases will be made in the near future, but with this air of uncertainty flowing out of the Brussels waffle shops, some telcos might be hesitant to charge forward. What’s the point in potential purchasing and deploying equipment if the rosy-cheeks regulators are going to make you tear it out of the network?

The European Commission wants Europe to lead in the digital economy, but for this to happen the connectivity infrastructure needs to be up to scratch. The telcos need consistency and certainty when it comes to policies if they are to spend billions. The Flemish food fanatics are hardly known for their agility but for the European digital economy to remain on-track any significant changes to the regulatory landscape will have to be set in stone sharpish.

Now you start to get a feel for the problem. Who knows what conditions will be put into place with new policies, especially if the public service ponderers want the wording to appear generic enough so China cannot accuse the bloc of targeting it specifically. The gluttonous government officials will have to skip a few free lunches and get a move on.

But how could the covetous civil servants ban Huawei sorry China sorry nefarious bodies from contaminating the 5G goldmine?

The first suggestion is rumoured to be an amendment to a 2016 cybersecurity law to heighten the security requirements for any company which wants to contribute to critical infrastructure. Germany is reportedly making similar amendments to heighten requirements, but to protect itself and also allow Chinese companies to participate. You can only assume any altercations at a European level would not be as welcoming, targeting companies who could potentially be influenced (irrelevant of any concrete evidence) by a nefarious government.

A second suggestion would be more related to procurement processes, though the gaggle of red-tapers will have to be careful here. Whenever regulators and legislators attempt to influence commercial processes too much there is often resistance from the private sector.

The revelation will certainly be of interest to the US, which has done its best to turn the world against the country which is challenging the Land of the Free for global supremacy. While government intervention might sound like a bit of a contradiction for a country which so proudly promotes the concepts of market freedoms and capitalism, we have stopped keeping check on how mental the US is becoming.

But perhaps this was the long-game from the US all along. It bans Chinese companies sharpish and then moves onto plant the seeds of doubt elsewhere knowing other countries would take a more considered and evidence-based approach to such a massive decision. With the Europeans dithering, the US can race ahead with 5G deployment, attract the most innovative companies to establish R&D sites within its own border and all of a sudden it dominates the 5G economy just like it dominates 4G now.

Whatever the outcome, uncertainty is the enemy of progress. If they ban Chinese companies or if they don’t, the bureaucrats need to decide quickly. Regulations need to be set in stone to allow the telcos to consider all the implications and make commercial decisions. Uncertainty is only going to stutter rollouts and damage the influence of Europe on the digital economy.

And for Huawei, 2019 seems to be going from bad to worse.

With elections looming the EU pressures internet companies over ‘disinformation’

Having signed up to the EU’s code of practice against disinformation, a bunch of tech companies are inevitably being told they need to do more.

The EU extracted a formal promise at the end of September 2018 from Google, Facebook, Twitter, Mozilla and the trade associations representing the advertising sector to try to tackle whatever the EU deemed to be political disinformation online. When we covered it we reckoned it would be the thin end of the wedge and would be used to extract further concessions in future, and so it has turned out.

A European Commission missive today called on signatories to the code of practice to do better. It said there had been some progress in things like removing fake accounts, but wants full transparency of political ads by the start of the campaign for the European elections in all EU Member States.

“Signatories have taken action, for example giving people new ways to get more details about the source of a story or ad,” said Andrus Ansip, Vice-President for the Digital Single Market.  “Now they should make sure these tools are available to everyone across the EU, monitor their efficiency, and continuously adapt to new means used by those spreading disinformation. There is no time to waste.”

As if to illustrate the homogeneous hive mind that is the EC the release featured quotes from three other Commissioners saying almost exactly the same as Ansip. Seriously, check it out.

“With the launch of European election network with EU authorities last week and this report today, we are stepping up the pace on all fronts to ensure free and fair elections,” said Věra Jourová, Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality. “I expect companies will fully follow up on their rhetoric and commitment. Time is short so we need to act now.”

“Given the proximity of the European elections, any progress made in the fight against disinformation is welcome,” said Julian King, Commissioner for the Security Union. “But we need to go further and faster before May. We don’t want to wake up the day after the elections and realise we should have done more.”

“Today’s reports rightly focus on urgent actions, such as taking down fake accounts,” said Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society. It is a good start. “Now I expect the signatories to intensify their monitoring and reporting and increase their cooperation with fact-checkers and research community. We need to ensure our citizens’ access to quality and objective information allowing them to make informed choices.”

As ever the signatories will have armies of experts calculating the precise minimum level of compliance required to keep the EC off their back, but they should avoid trying to be too cute because the EC can get pretty vindictive when it feels the private sector is being insufficiently deferential.

The companies will now get their work marked on a monthly basis and they’d better not slack off, or else. “By the end of 2019, the Commission will carry out a comprehensive assessment at the end of the Code’s initial 12-month period,” concludes the announcement. “Should the results prove unsatisfactory, the Commission may propose further actions, including of a regulatory nature.”

Reading between the lines, the entire Eurocracy is presumably pretty worried about how May’s European elections will play out. They have traditionally been able to count on voter apathy to ensure nice compliant MEPs. But upheaval across the continent, vividly demonstrated via the gilet jaunes movement, means people might actually bother to vote this time, and for some pretty out-there candidates. This could be an attempt to limit the ability of such candidates to spread their message.

All data-roads lead to Tokyo after EU’s thumbs up

The European Commission has given its nod of approval for data protection rules drawn up in Japan, effectively extending GDPR protections for European citizens to the Asian country.

On top of the current data protection regulations in Japan, an additional set of rules have been created adding safeguards to guarantee that data transferred from the EU will be subject to the same protection as European standards. The supplementary rules will be binding on Japanese companies importing data from the EU and enforceable by the Japanese regulator and courts.

“This adequacy decision creates the world’s largest area of safe data flows,” said Věra Jourová, Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality.

“Europeans’ data will benefit from high privacy standards when their data is transferred to Japan. Our companies will also benefit from a privileged access to a 127 million consumers’ market. Investing in privacy pays off; this arrangement will serve as an example for future partnerships in this key area and help setting global standards.”

Starting with the rules, new conditions will be set into play regarding the protection of data, the rights of European citizens to request further information on usage, as well as further requirements dictating what data can be transferred out of Japan to other nations. Protections have also been put in place with regard to how intelligence and law enforcement agencies can use or retain data, while a complaint-handling mechanism has also been introduced.

With these new rules the road to Tokyo is now open, allowing data to freely transfer between Japan and all members of the European Economic Area (EEA), Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. It’s a win for the bureaucrats which have been looking to develop deeper relationships, creating a trading bloc which can provide more competition for the likes of the US and China.

“This is the first time that such a recognition takes place under the GDPR and in a reciprocal manner. As of today, Japan has adopted an equivalent decision for data transferred to the EEA,” said Tanguy Van Overstraeten, TMT Partner and Global Head of Data Protection at law firm Linklaters.

“This major milestone puts both Japan and the EU in a unique position, strengthening the recently adopted Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) between the EU and Japan. The EPA will enter into effect on 1 February 2019, creating an open trading area covering over 600 million people and almost one third of the world’s GDP.”

For Japan enthusiasts, this announcement will come as great news, especially ahead of the EU-Japan trade agreement which is set to come into force next month. This tie up will create an open trading zone covering 635 million people and almost one third of the world’s total GDP, and the first ever bilateral framework agreement between the two parties.

As part of the new relationship the vast majority of the €1 billion of duties paid annually by EU companies exporting to Japan will be removed, as well as regulatory barriers inhibiting some trade, for example on car exports.

The European Commission might have its critics throughout the world, but this doesn’t look like anything aside from a good bit of business.

Europe launches new AI initiative to begin catch-up mission

This month has seen the launch of the European Commission’s AI4EU project, an initiative to create an AI-on-demand platform for Europe and challenge for leadership in this blossoming segment.

Having been agreed during December, the AI4EU project already has 79 partners in 21 countries across the bloc, firstly focusing on developing eight industry-driven AI pilots which will demonstrate the value of the AI-on-demand platform as a technological innovation tool. Led by Thales, the group will receive €20 million in funding to begin with.

“The European Commission has published its coordinated plan on artificial intelligence, as well as new guidelines on how to deal with the ethical issues relating to AI,” said Roberto Viola, the Director General of DG Connect at the European Commission, in a recent blog post. “Both put humans firmly at the centre of this key technology that has the potential to revolutionise all our lives.”

Looking at the specific work-groups, the first eight will focus on the European citizen, robotics, industry, healthcare, media, agriculture, IOT and cybersecurity, with the work being built on the idea of ‘human centred AI’. As part of AI4EU, an Ethics Observatory will be established to ensure the respect of human centred AI values.

The power and potential of artificial intelligence has certainly been a talking point over recent months, as dreams become reality and new products emerge. Every region around the world is attempting to plant its flag and dominate the area, with AI4EU as the European effort. While the initiative will aim to encourage industry collaboration, it will also draw out a strategic agenda and also aim to fill technology gaps which might emerge should a fragmented approach to development arise.

While this is certainly a good start, the European Commission certainly has some work to do to make sure the bloc isn’t left behind as Silicon Valley and China charge ahead. That said, it does look like AI will get the rightful attention it deserves over the coming years.

“The EU has been supporting artificial intelligence for many years, and for the next seven-year EU budget period, which is due to start in 2021, AI and the wider digital economy will play an even more central role: a new funding programme, Digital Europe, has been proposed, with €9.2 billion potentially available to support the further development of the EU’s digital single market, including €2.5 billion specifically to support AI,” said Viola.

“For all its ambition, the EU is still lagging behind other parts of the world when it comes to investing in AI. This is why the European Commission has already agreed to increase EU research funding for AI to €1.5 billion between now and 2020.”