Russia in Eastern Europe — Privacy Shield executive order — Washington’s countdown – POLITICO | #socialmedia


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By MARK SCOTT

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DIGITAL BRIDGE IS BACK to its regular schedule this week — even though I’m off today. I’m Mark Scott, POLITICO’s chief technology correspondent, and as we continue to be bombarded with wave after wave of bad news, I give you this: a peacock chasing after an ice cream van. It’s what we all need right now.

Now back to the doom and gloom:

— In Eastern European countries, Russian state media and disinformation are still all over Facebook.

— The White House’s executive order linked to the new transatlantic data transfer deal is likely to drop this month.

— Washington has a month to get its digital legislative priorities over the line (and it’s not looking good).

WHY COMBATING RUSSIAN DISINFORMATION IS SO DIFFICULT

WITH RUSSIAN STATE MEDIA banned from social media and everyone from the European Union to Meta championing how they are hamstringing Kremlin talking points from reaching a global audience, it’s easy to think Moscow is losing the information war. Across the West, that’s certainly true. But in Eastern Europe, Russian disinformation is alive and kicking — and highlights how ineffectual the current sanctions and social media policing have been, particularly in countries like Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary.

So what’s out there? In Hungary, whose government is overtly pro-Kremlin, documentaries made by state-owned (and supposedly banned) RT and Russia-1 media outlets about the war are being shared widely in multiple local Facebook groups, according to Szilvi Német, from Hungarian fact-checking organization Lakmusz. In Poland, Russian false narratives portraying Ukrainian refugees as criminals and the West’s faltering support for the Eastern European country popped up repeatedly on Facebook when I searched CrowdTangle, the social media analytics firm owned by Meta.

In Bulgaria, Facebook posts that compared Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s president, to Adolf Hitler; accusations that Ukrainian refugees beat up locals; and repeated claims the United States was using Ukraine as a proxy to attack Russia have been shared, collectively, hundreds of thousands of times by Bulgarians, based on data provided to Digital Bridge by the country’s digital ministry. Many of these posts were flagged to Facebook as potential disinformation. As of June 1, none had been taken down.

“Disinformation is a systemic risk for Bulgaria,” Bozhidar Bozhanov, the country’s minister of electronic governance, told me, adding that he, personally, had increasingly seen Russian disinformation in his own Facebook feed, including prompted suggestions about potential content that he could be interested in served up by the social media giant. “As a minister in Bulgaria, I need to do something about it. That’s how I feel.”

These experiences across Eastern Europe underline a growing dichotomy in how Kremlin-backed media content and propaganda are handled. In the U.S. and other populous Western countries, a combination of sophisticated machine-learning content algorithms and the increased scrutiny from politicians has seen scores of such material scrubbed off Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. The companies have been eager to publicly show how — given the unfolding war — they are doing their part to stop these narratives from spreading.

Yet in smaller countries, particularly in places whose populations may be more favorable to Vladimir Putin, that same level of attention is sorely lacking. Bozhanov, the Bulgarian minister, said his repeated discussions with Facebook about Russian disinformation had left him frustrated with how the company was handling the problem. “We first had an initial call to state our concerns and the issues that we see,” he said. “Then we sent out a particular list of questions, some very technical, some more high level, to get this broader understanding. The answers were unsatisfactory.”

In response, Meta said it was investigating scores of links related to Facebook posts from Russian state media and disinformation associated with the Kremlin that I sent them from scouring content from across Eastern Europe.

To tackle Russian disinformation — arguably a difficult task because a lot of the content, while nasty, is not technically breaking any laws — there needs to be a realization that legitimate content moderation should not be available only to the U.S. and parts of Western Europe. Smaller countries, too, must receive similar levels of resources, in terms of human moderators, functioning automated content systems and, frankly, access to social media executives who are willing to treat requests/complaints from the likes of Bulgaria in the same way they respond to similar issues flagged in the U.S.

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR IN TH PRIVACY SHIELD EXECUTIVE ORDER

BUCKLE UP: The White House’s long-awaited details about how it will give Europeans greater legal rights to complain about how their data is potentially mishandled when transferred across the Atlantic is expected later this month, according to three people with direct knowledge of those discussions. That will kick off another six-month process in which the European Commission will have to figure out a way to write those changes into EU law — most likely before it then gets challenged, legally, at Europe’s highest court.

Yet that’s not where the action will be. Details of the upcoming executive order remain (maddeningly) hard to come by. But there are expected to be — for the first time — specific details on the “necessary and proportionate” limits for how U.S. national security agencies can access both European and American data. That would represent a step-change for parts of the U.S. government that, until very recently, would have preferred to have unfettered access, no questions asked.

The last-minute haggling on these details is why we still haven’t had the executive order despite U.S. President Joe Biden and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announcing a data transfers political agreement more than two months ago. The U.S. intelligence community has finally woken up to the fact it needs to be more circumspect with how it collects people’s data. But that realization has been hard to translate into a list of dos and don’ts to which American spooks can then be held accountable.

But don’t be fooled — this “necessary and proportionate” language should not be understated. It would firstly codify limitations, both for Americans and Europeans, about how far U.S. intelligence agencies can go in collecting people’s information, and in what circumstances that can happen. Sure, it’s not the win that many privacy campaigners would have wanted. But it would be a far cry from the revelations unearthed by Edward Snowden over the data-gathering excesses that still plague many of these agencies.

Second, it could give the Commission the firepower to win the legal challenge that will almost certainly be filed as soon as the new transatlantic data agreement is signed off, most likely by the end of the year. If the U.S. government outlines, in concrete language, what its limits to data access are, then — the theory goes — it will be harder for Europe’s highest court to determine that the new pact falls afoul of the 27-country bloc’s fundamental right to privacy.

There’s also a geopolitical angle to this move. Ever since Europe’s top court invalidated the first transatlantic data pact, U.S. officials have claimed, legitimately, that Washington’s access to EU data is treated differently compared with how national European governments similarly collect information on EU citizens. That’s true. As national security is viewed as a domestic competence (outside of the clutches of the Commission), EU members’ security agencies have greater rein to snoop on Europeans versus their American counterparts.

And so by outlining, for the first time, what the “necessary and proportionate” limits are to U.S. data collection, it’s hard not to view Washington trying to shine a pretty bright flashlight on the data-collection practices of European national security agencies that have not made the same public commitments. Sure, I may be reading too much into this. But if American spies are willing to agree to such limits, the question then becomes: Why can’t the Europeans do the same?

BY THE NUMBERS

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WASHINGTON’S TICKING LEGISLATIVE CLOCK

MAYBE MY GRUMPINESS IS GETTING TO ME. But I still struggle to see how U.S. lawmakers can pass any digital legislation between now and the midterms elections in November (when Republicans are on track to win back control of both houses of Congress). Still, if something (anything!!) is going to happen, June looks like crunch time, given the limited time to pass laws before electioneering takes over. So where do we stand? On privacy — arguably an issue where there’s wide bipartisan support — comprehensive federal data protection rules look like a hard sell. Instead, we could see movement on specific areas of privacy legislation, either around data portability or how people’s data is used in content algorithms. The International Association of Privacy Professionals has a good breakdown of where things stand.

The other notable area is competition reform. A new draft of the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, led by U.S. Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar, was published on May 26. It’s pretty much unchanged from early versions and focuses primarily on stopping Big Tech from tilting the scales in its favor compared with smaller rivals. Yet given that a similar bill was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, by Democratic lawmaker David Cicilline, almost a year ago and has yet to reach a floor vote, time is also running out on such digital antitrust reforms before the legislative agenda gets a whole lot tougher after the November elections.

TTC VERSUS THE QUAD

THIS NEWSLETTER FOCUSES on the transatlantic relationship. But we shouldn’t forget that EU-U.S. digital issues aren’t the only game in town. The so-called Quad, or Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, between Australia, India, Japan and the U.S., has been underway for more than a year and, in many ways, is both a rival and counterpart to the EU-U.S. Trade and Technology Council (TTC). To dig into that relationship a little more, I jumped on a call with Tyson Barker, a former U.S. State Department official who now runs the technology and global affairs program at the German Council on Foreign Relations, a Berlin-based think tank.

On the Quad and TTC: “The U.S. is just full of Pacific romantics, and so is the White House. They really just want to do Indo-Pacific, but pesky Europe keeps getting in the way. At some point, there’s going to be a lot of tension around the India-Russia trade relationship. It’s not there yet. But as things become more acute because of the degradation of the Russian economy, that could have spillover effects into the tech space.”

On the U.S.’s stance on Europe versus Asia: “Obama called the EU-U.S. summit a trip to the [dentist’s] office; that’s why he canceled it. And that’s kind of the feeling in Washington. Dealing with Europe is so tedious. You can have a lot more fun in Asia.”

On why that is a mistake: “The traffic from undersea cables between the U.S. and Europe is 55 percent higher than traffic between the U.S. and the Indo-Pacific. The stock of that relationship is something that is completely under-appreciated by the national security crowd, which always leads on U.S. engagement with the world.”

On the U.S.’s take on Europe: “Washington’s approach to Europe is Republicans are hostile and Democrats are indifferent. The reason is because [of] the way the U.S. sees the world. Sure, Ukraine and Russia, that’s an acute challenge. But the chronic challenge remains China.”

WONK OF THE WEEK

IT’S ALL CHANGE at the United Kingdom’s Competition and Markets Authority, the country’s antitrust agency, where Marcus Bokkerink has just been nominated to take over as its chairman. (Complete with $134,000 salary for just two days a week of work. Rough gig.)

The former Boston Consulting Group executive doesn’t have the job yet — he still needs to gain parliamentary approval, albeit a formality given the U.K. government doesn’t have to comply with whatever the British lawmakers decide.

The CMA chairman doesn’t have day-to-day authority over specific cases. That’s left to a new chief executive who will take over from outgoing Andrea Coscelli sometime next month. Still, Bokkerink will have to calm increasingly choppy waters after the U.K. government decided to pull the breaks on an overhaul of the country’s digital competition rules.

THEY SAID WHAT, NOW?

We aren’t even close to being out of the woods as it relates to the supply problems with semiconductors,Gina Raimondo, the U.S. commerce secretary, said on Twitter. “The semiconductor supply chain is very fragile, and it is going to remain that way until we can increase chip production.

WHAT I’M READING

— The European Digital Media Observatory, a group of mostly academics, published a report on how outside researchers could access social media data without infringing people’s privacy rights. Read the draft code from page 10.

— The California Privacy Protection Agency released proposed rules for how companies need to comply with the Golden State’s new data protection regime. Take a look here.

— The state of privacy will remain uncertain until society learns the lessons of the digital revolution, and the tech sector overemphasizes how new regulations may harm innovation, according to Daniel Therrien, the outgoing privacy commissioner of Canada.

— Leaders of the Quad countries met in Japan and, among other outcomes, doubled down on their cooperation on cybersecurity, emerging technologies and semiconductors. Read the statement here.

— Europe is on the verge of a new technology law-making paradigm, based on its series of recent legislative initiatives, the long shadow left by the bloc’s privacy regime and the “brutality” of EU law, argue Vagelis Papakonstantinou and Paul De Her in Technology and Regulation.

— The U.S. Federal Trade Commission fined Twitter $150 million for illegally using people’s security data to target them with social media advertising. More here.

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