SEEsummary #37 | April 2020

Issue no. 37 of the SEEsummary, published on 1 May 2020.

This issue covers Internet governance and digital policy developments that occurred in South Eastern Europe and the neighbouring area (SEE+) in April 2020. Also included: a list of free online courses and tools for remote work, and an overview of upcoming capacity development and other opportunities for SEE+ stakeholders.

Contributors to this issue: Meri Baghdasaryan, Maja Ćalović, Grațiela Dumitrescu, Katarina Gevorgyan, Aleksandra Ivanković, Ana Jovanović, Olga Kyryliuk, Neli Odishvili, Marko Paloski, Vasile Popa, Mariam Tsiklauri. Coordination: Olga Kyryliuk. Design : Charalampos Kyritsis

Telecommunications infrastructure

The Azerbaijani Parliament approved an interstate agreement with Turkmenistan, signed in November 2019, on the deployment of an undersea Internet backbone line across the Caspian Sea. The project will be implemented by telecom companies AzerTelecom and Turkmentelecom. The cable will be laid along a 300 km route and send data from European Internet centers through Azerbaijan to Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, with the minimum capacity of 2-4 terabits per second. Similar project on the deployment of a 400 km Trans-Caspian Fiber Optic cable line will be implemented between Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.

The Parliament of Ukraine adopted in the first reading amendments to the Criminal Code increasing liability for willful damage of telecom networks and equipment. Minor damages, not resulting in disruption of service provision, will lead to fines from EUR 58 to EUR 116. If service disruption took place, the guilty persons can be fined up to EUR 1 740 or imprisoned for up to three years. Repetitive violation might lead to imprisonment for up to six years. At the same time, disruption of service provision to critical infrastructures is classified as the harshest violation, resulting in six to ten years in jail and accompanied with property confiscation. Theft and willful damage of telecom equipment are quite widespread in Ukraine, with over 122 000 cases reported over the last four years. Experts explain such high indicators by the incompatibility between severe consequences and small fines prescribed by legislation currently in force. The bill is pending its final voting and has high chances to be adopted.

Artificial intelligence

Tech company Grin IT, a resident of the Belarus Hi-Tech Park, developed a free online platform helping users to identify their risks of getting infected with COVID-19 by conducting online diagnosis of symptoms and providing recommendations as to further steps (which, however, should not be considered as the final medical conclusion). The main goal of the project is to provide a comfortable service to users to monitor their own health and to decrease the pressure on the healthcare system. The service allows users to monitor the development of their symptoms over time. 

Meanwhile, Croatia introduced a WhatsApp chatbot Andrija designed to educate citizens on the identification of COVID-19 symptoms and to connect them to relevant authorities and institutions, thus reducing the pressure on the healthcare system. Andrija, named after the Croatian physician and social medicine scholar Andrija Štampar, was donated by the Croatian AI Association and is available to all Croatian citizens free of charge.

Ukrainian tech company Fulcrum developed a neural network able to identify people without medical masks in the crowd by analysing recordings from the web cameras. The network was trained for two weeks to recognise the mask on the human’s face.

Cybersecurity & Cybercrime

The Bulgarian and Serbian prosecutor’s offices with the support of the European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation (Eurojust) and Europol participated in an international  investigation operation in a case of illegal cyber trading. During the operation, five suspects, out of whom two leaders of a criminal network, were arrested in Bulgaria. Another five suspects were arrested by the Serbian authorities, which additionally searched nine places, seized five apartments, three cars, a large amount of cash, IT equipment, as well as placed over 30 bank accounts under surveillance. The fraud scheme was based on persuading thousands of victims across Europe to invest in non-existent financial products by registering on unlicensed online trading platforms for an EUR 250 fee. Once registered, the victims were contacted by designated agents offering even higher profits for a transfer of money to various accounts or release of extra debit amounts from their credit cards. After the simulation of the alleged trading of financial products, the money was distributed among the criminals in charge of the money laundering scheme.

Access & Development

The digitalisation of all public services is one of the key indicators to be achieved by the Ministry of Digital Transformation of Ukraine until 2024. For that, the Ministry created a dedicated online portal Diya. Currently 27 public services are available online, including registering as an entrepreneur, getting a certificate of criminal record, receiving childbirth assistance, filing a lawsuit, registering a vehicle, etc. Citizens can also check what kind of personal information is maintained in five state registries. The online portal is aimed at unification and simplification of public services. The latter are classified by categories and life events. In their personal profiles Ukrainians can already access vehicle registration certificates and driving licenses. Digital ID and biometric passport for traveling abroad will soon be available in the system as well. To access some of these services, citizens should have an electronic signature. During the portal beta testing period, conducted from 24 February until 30 March, over 800 personal profiles have been registered in Diya.

The Ministry of Tourism of Greece, the Greek National Tourism Organisation (EOT) and the non-profit tourism organisation Marketing Greece created an online platform Greece From Home aimed at helping people all over the world to stay in touch with Greece and its culture, get inspired by the country’s beauty and strengthen their digital skills. Structurally, the platform consists of three sections: Watch – through the EOT Visit Greece channel on YouTube (Greek music, gastronomy, theatre, dance, etc.), Visit – through the digital portal www.discovergreece.com (Greek archaeological sites, museums, etc.), Learn – through the Google’s Grow Greek Tourism Online programme (how to create a digital marketing plan for a tourism business, work remotely, etc.). Trainings are available from 2 April and offered free of charge. Upon completion participants will receive a certificate of attendance from Google, the Ministry of Tourism of Greece and the European Interactive Advertising Bureau. In the first ten days of operation of the Greece From Home platform, more than 1000 participants signed up to attend group online seminars and 135 individual trainings have been scheduled with Google staff supporting the programme. The platform is part of the government’s strategic response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

During a video conference, the Minister of Information Society and Administration of North Macedonia, Damjan Manchevski, and the European Commissioner for Budget and Administration, Johannes Hahn, signed an agreement granting North Macedonia access to the European Union’s Digital Administration programme ISA2, which supports the development of digital solutions in public administration by simplifying administrative procedures and enabling interoperable, cross-border and cross-sector public services. This programme is mainly designed for EU member states but an exception was made for North Macedonia as a candidate country, which became the 31st member of ISA2.  Moreover, North Macedonia joined the EU Strategy for the Adriatic and Ionian Region (EUSAIR) that promotes economic growth and prosperity in the region by improving its attractiveness, competitiveness and connectivity. In this move North Macedonia joined Croatia, Greece, Italy, Slovenia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia.

The government of Azerbaijan launched a new online platform aimed at informing the society about the importance of staying home during the COVID-19 pandemic and promoting personal development. The website is structured around the following categories: challenges and opportunities, education, health, entertainment, food and delivery categories. It also contains information on how to set up a digital business and how to run it from home. 

Meanwhile, the Georgian government activated a new English-language Telegram channel aimed at disseminating information on the situation in the country and the measures taken by the government against COVID-19. Back in March 2020, it introduced a dedicated website serving a similar purpose and available in Georgian, English, Azerbaijani, Armenian and Abkhazian.

The government of Romania, through the Authority for the Digitization of Romania, launched a digital platform as a solution for citizens to connect with public institutions that do not have an online registration system. The overall objective is to enroll all public institutions into a digital system capable of responding to citizens’ requests in electronic format in the shortest possible time. Another online platform – DiasporaHub.rowas launched in partnership with non-governmental organisation Code for Romania Task Force and is aimed at supporting Romanian citizens and associations abroad during emergency situations by connecting people who file requests for support with those who provide such support.

Given the fact that the majority of markets are being closed due COVID-19 outbreak, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Water Management of Serbia launched an electronic market, where people can order fruits, vegetables, and other products. Currently, goods can be ordered from 1 208 registered vendors from all over the country. Ordered goods can be shipped directly by the manufacturers or by numerous delivery services.

In Russia, the Ministry of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media published a list of 391 socially significant websites, which individuals will be able to access without the traffic being counted towards their data caps until the end of June. It is an experimental project run together with largest telecom providers – Rostelecom, R-Telecom, MTS, Megafon and VympelCom, and addressed at home Internet users only. The purpose behind this initiative is to provide convenient access to information and services. The list is not final and might be changed on a regular basis, considering the COVID-19 self-isolation circumstances and the increased reliance on online services. Among those included in the list are social networks Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki, ICQ, search engines Yandex and Rambler, taxi, food delivery, bank services, news portals and many others.

The Romanian government has approved a regulation to foster the use of electronic documents between public authorities and between them and individuals or legal entities. From 7 April 2020, public authorities and institutions are obliged to accept documents signed with an electronic signature. For that purpose each public authority and institution will have to determine the applicable type of electronic signature and to launch their own online platforms or use online platforms provided by third parties. If the electronic documents cannot be received via an online platform, communication should take place via email.

The Romanian government approved a decision allowing companies to pay their taxes, fines and tariffs to the state budget online via the platform Ghiseul.ro. In order to use this service companies have to be registered in the National Electronic Payment System (SNEP). Public institutions are obliged to accept all types of online payments. Fees charged for online payments should not exceed 1 percent of the transaction value. The measure is aimed at accelerating the digital transformation of public services and improving their quality.

The National Regulatory Agency for Electronic Communications and Information Technology (ANRCETI) of Moldova prohibited state-owned telecom company Moldtelecom from disconnecting private customers from fixed telephone services. At the same time, Moldtelecom is allowed to set a disconnection threshold limit for international calls via its fixed telephony services. Other than that, termination by disconnection is allowed only in case of fraud. All telecom providers were advised to avoid disconnection of services during the state of emergency.

Capacity development

The Ministry of Education, Culture and Research of Moldova in partnership with telecom provider Orange Moldova and in collaboration with the University Information Centre launched a national campaign ‘Connect teachers’ aimed at ensuring the continuity of the distance education process. During the campaign, Orange Moldova will provide teachers in all primary schools, gymnasiums and high schools, both public and private, with free 50 GB of mobile Internet traffic. Between 3 and 15 April, school administrations were invited to submit lists of teachers who have restricted access to the Internet and could benefit from participation in the campaign. After verification of the lists, the mobile Internet traffic has been allocated on 22 April and will remain valid for two months.

Telecom provider Ucom in cooperation with the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sport of Armenia promotes distance learning by offering a free usage of a number of websites and applications (Zoom, Skype, Viber, WhatsApp, www.armedu.am, etwinning.net, etc.) without payment for the consumed traffic until the end of May 2020. The campaign is part of the company’s social responsibility activities and is aimed at supporting Armenians in their efforts to continue education online and to stay connected with their loved ones during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Telecom provider Telenor Bulgaria offers a series of free educational videos on Internet safety addressing some of the most common online risks and prevention methods, in particular ways of protecting personal data, identifying and protecting from fake online profiles, spotting fake news and preventing cyberbullying. The videos were created together with the Bulgarian Safer Internet Centre and are available at a dedicated website.

The National Children’s Technopark in Belarus is designed as a single space providing opportunities for studying, working and sophisticating technical skills. Educational programmes will be available as full-time and distance learning. Technopark will unite students from 6 to 11 grades, with each group comprising seven to ten students. The onsite course will last up to 21 days and will be followed by individual work conducted by students with support from technopark staff through digital technologies. The reconstruction of the educational and laboratory facilities has already started. Additionally, it is planned to construct a secondary school with a capacity for 750 students and a dormitory for 300 residents. The technopark will open in Minsk by the beginning of 2021. It is expected that such innovative training will motivate students to choose their future profession in the field of science and high technology.

Privacy and data protection

Personal information of 4.9 million Georgians, both alive and deceased, has been published on a hacker forum. The current population of Georgia is estimated at 3.7 million. The data include full names, home addresses, dates of birth, ID numbers and mobile phone numbers. The data source was not yet identified. Initially it was reported that the data were taken from the Georgian Central Election Commission (CEC) list of voters. However, the CEC officially denied that the data had been leaked from its servers, explaining that there was no cyber incident reported but also that the leaked data is more extensive, not always matching the CEC records and including also information on deceased people, which is not maintained in voting lists. Later in April, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research lab confirmed that the leaked dataset traces back to 2011 but has resurfaced only in 2020.

The Special Telecommunications Service (STS) of Romania, in partnership with Google and Apple, introduced an advanced mobile location (AML) solution that allows geographic tracking of calls made to the 112 emergency line. AML is already available throughout the country and is supposed to be used only during emergency calls. AML helps people with hearing and/or speech disabilities texting 113 on Android phones, does not require installation of additional applications and has an accuracy of metres. Emergency services can use the AML free of charge. The APEL 112 mobile application can be downloaded from Google Play and App Store, making 112 calls possible with a single screen touch.

Croatia introduced a system of e-passes (e-Propusnica) in an attempt to simplify and unify the procedure of granting exceptional permissions for travel within the country, which has been prohibited since late March. Requests for an e-pass should be submitted through the e-Građanin (e-Citizen) system and addressed to the employer, general practitioner or civil protection authority. E-passes are sent via email, contain QR code and can be printed if needed. Within one hour upon issuance of an e-pass, the respective data will be shared with the Ministry of the Interior for further verification on the spot. E-passes can be granted for the maximum duration of 14 days. Starting from 6 April any travel will be possible only based on e-passes, while all previously issued passes should be replaced. According to the Ministry of Public Administration more than 860 000 passes have been issued via the e-Propusnica service so far.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the governments in SEE+ have been using mobile phone tracking as a countermeasure. While some states already report positive results of citizens’ location tracking, others are gradually adopting similar measures, not without generating privacy concerns.

The Moscow City Council announced the introduction of digital passes for Moscow residents to be used when leaving home during the COVID-19. Moreover, a smartphone app was developed to monitor the movements of self-isolated COVID-19 patients. It is reported that the Moscow authorities have already been buying allegedly anonymous location data from Russian telecom operators.  In addition, the Moscow City Council revealed its plan to track foreigners for COVID-19 prevention purposes once Russia reopens its borders. 

In Turkey the Ministry of Health in cooperation with the Information and Communication Technologies Authority and mobile operators launched the Pandemic Isolation Tracking Project to ensure the preservation of quarantine rules. The tracked citizens will receive messages and calls from the authorities when they leave their homes and will be asked to return home, otherwise, risking being penalized. There are significant concerns as to the compliance of this measure with the national data protection law. Additionally, the Ministry of Health has introduced a mobile app allowing citizens to identify and monitor the COVID-19 cases in their location, in particular the risk level, the density of infected and isolated people. It also offers an option to pass a diagnostic test for COVID-19, provides information on nearby pharmacies and supermarkets, as well as general updates on COVID-19 situation around the country.      

Meanwhile, since 31 March the Armenian government has analysed telephone data of 3 029 persons and claimed positive results in preventing the further dissemination of COVID-19 through mobile location tracking. The legislative amendments allowing the collection of cell phone users’ data including their location, numbers they called and time of the calls raised concerns among information technology and human rights experts.

In North Macedonia the government has introduced a ‘Stop Korona’ application, which is designed to detect close contacts with potentially infected people. The users are requested to voluntarily enter their mobile number to activate and use the application. The data is claimed to be stored on a secure server of the Ministry of Health. 

Check the March issue of the SEEsummary to know more about similar measures adopted in other countries.

Content policy & Freedom of expression

In the beginning of April, social network Twitter reported that in 2019 it removed 8558 accounts in Serbia engaged in inauthentic coordinated activity aimed at promotion of the country’s ruling party and its leader Aleksandar Vučić. Deleted accounts were found to be in violation of Twitter’s manipulation and spam policy, and qualified as a targeted attempt to undermine the public conversation. All datasets, including all public, non-deleted Tweets and media from accounts potentially connected to state-backed information operations, can be found in Twitter publicly available archives. According to data released in April, Serbia was leading among other countries by the number of deleted accounts.

The first regional Anti-Disinformation Network for the Balkans (ADN-Balkans) was  created by nine organisations from five Balkan economies – Albania, Greece, Kosovo*, North Macedonia, and Serbia. The network will strengthen cross-border cooperation between civil society organisations, media outlets, educational institutions and other relevant stakeholders in their efforts to counter disinformation by conducting responsible fact-checking, as well as promoting critical thinking and digital literacy. The ADN-Balkans founding members adopted a declaration reiterating the importance of the right to freedom of expression and free flow of information and called for openness, transparency and accountability of information campaigns. They specifically stressed the importance of taking into account the regional specifics when designing advocacy campaigns against disinformation.The network is open for accession and cooperation.

While trying to curb the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the government of Turkey made a simultaneous attempt to toughen social media regulations. Suggested amendments to the Regulation of Internet publications and combating crimes committed through these publications would have required all platforms accessed daily by more than one million users in the country (e.g. YouTube, Twitter, Facebook) to appoint a legal country representative able to address concerns raised by authorities regarding the published content. Content requests should be handled within 72 hours, while quarterly reports should be submitted to Turkish authorities specifying all removed and blocked content. Failure to comply with content requests would result in fines up to 1 million Turkish lira (around EUR 131 425). Moreover, companies that do not follow the rules could face reduction of their Internet traffic bandwidth up to 95 percent. The amendments also envisage the localisation of data hosting. After a wave of criticism from the opposition, the amendments have been withdrawn from the economic measures package but there are considerable concerns that there will be another attempt to pass them in the future.

Governments in SEE+ region continued to adopt measures against the spread of panic and disinformation on COVID-19. While some countries have lifted all restrictions on media outlets, others adopted new regulations, including imposition of fines for the spread of panic during the state of emergency. In addition, several governments have introduced new rules for responding to freedom of information requests.

The Armenian government lifted all restrictions for covering COVID-19 pandemic. Media outlets are now allowed to cite foreign official sources, while information about Armenia should refer only to the official sources.

After a journalist was detained for an article about bad working conditions at a hospital, the government of Serbia revoked a decision on centralised informing about COVID-19. This decision meant that only the Central Crisis Staff could decide on what should be released to the public, while the dissemination of information from unauthorised sources could result in liability. 

Meanwhile, in the Republic of Srpska (part of Bosnia and Herzegovina) a new decree was adopted banning the spread of panic during the state of emergency. It enshrines fines up to EUR 4 500 for individuals and companies that spread panic and fake news through media and social networks. Free speech advocates have called for withdrawal of the decree and unhindered access to free and unbiased information. 

Furthermore, under the pretext of the state of emergency, governments in many SEE+ countries introduced new deadlines and regulations for responding to freedom of information (FOI) requests. The decision on whether to respond to such requests is left at the discretion of the public authorities in Moldova, while the Serbian authorities are allowed to refuse to respond to questions that are not related to the pandemic. In addition, governments have extended the deadlines for responding to FOI requests. Thus, in Moldova the authorities now have 45 days to respond (15 before), in Serbia – 30 days after the state of emergency is lifted, in Romania – 20 days (10 before). 

Moreover, in Montenegro the government attempted to move forward with the public debates on the amendments to the national law on access to information regardless of the imposed restrictions due to the declared state of emergency. However, after human rights groups raised concerns as to the limited possibilities to hold public consultations under the current circumstances, the Ministry of Public Administration called for written comments. Afterwards it was announced that the public consultation will take place via a video conference.  According to the proposed bill, any information can be declared as confidential if its disclosure would affect a government body’s ability to function.

The Electronic Communications Authority (AKEP) of Albania ordered all Internet service providers to block 25  websites, including a popular blogging platform Medium. The access was blocked due to a request by Albanian actor Ermal Mamaqi submitted to the Albanian Audiovisual Media Authority (AMA) and based on a complaint about illegal broadcasting of his films on those online resources. It is unclear why the whole website was blocked instead of disputed content only. Medium has been unblocked after a few days in response to public criticism. Meanwhile, the Albanian Media Council called this move by AKEP to be a ‘pure censorship, anti-legal and anti-constitutional’.

Opportunities

Fellowships, scholarships, events and other engagement opportunities for SEE+ stakeholders

Upcoming deadlines

The House of Europe, funded by the European Union, is accepting applications for digital cooperation grants aimed to support collaborative cultural projects of Ukrainian and European organisations created for the digital space, for instance digital and social media arts, cloud-working, digital learning, institutional digitalisation, online exhibitions, concerts, and conferences. Digital cooperation grants aim to strengthen ties between creative and IT industries in Ukraine, the EU, and the UK, and encourage new forms of professional exchange and creativity. The best idea will win EUR 25 000. State and public non-profit organisations working in the field of culture and creative industries are invited to apply by submitting an innovative idea of a digital cooperation project,  a signed memorandum with a partnering organisation,

CyberEDU beta is an online platform providing over 100 exercises used in international cybersecurity competitions for those interested in improving their offensive and defensive skills in real life hacking scenarios with different levels of difficulty. In a dedicated environment infosec enthusiasts learn how to spot vulnerabilities and react accordingly. Challenges cover skills level from beginner to professional and include a variety of web and network applications.

The Council of Europe Cybercrime Programme Office, together with partners, continues to support criminal justice authorities worldwide in their cooperation efforts against cybercrime through a series of webinars. Some webinars are open to the public at-large, while others are designed specifically for law enforcement authorities or specific regions of the world. New webinars will be announced and registration will be available on a dedicated page of the Council of Europe. Check it to get regular updates.

Free online courses and tools for remote work

Due to the COVID-19 crisis, face-to-face events that have been scheduled for the month of May across the SEE+ region have been either cancelled or postponed. We will keep you updated on all the changes in the next issues of the SEEsummary. Meanwhile, we continue listing online resources that could help you to spend your time at home more productively and organise remote work for yourself or your colleagues in a more efficient way.

  1. Rockit Conference | 8-9 May 2020 | Open access to live video upon registration

  2. World Health Organization | OpenWHO online courses

  3. UNICEF | Free online courses

  4. International Monetary Fund | Free online courses

  5. World Bank Group | Open Learning Campus

  6. Council of Europe | HELP online courses

  7. European Commission | Online learning resources 

  8. Microsoft | Free online courses 

  9. British Council | 23 free online courses

  10. Harvard University | Harvard online courses

  11. HubSpot Academy | Free marketing courses

  12. United States Institute of Peace | Online courses

  13. Internet Archive | National Emergency Library

  14. Microsoft | Training: Azure 900 fundamentals for education (free Microsoft Azure training and exam voucher)

  15. Udacity | Udacity Nano degree (free 1 month)

  16. YouTube | YouTube Learn@Home

  17. Oracle | Oracle Cloud Infrastructure free online learning and certification voucher (till 15 May)

  18. Google Meet | Advanced features free through 30 September 2020

We encourage you to share any other relevant online resources and digital tools that you are using or are aware of with the SEEDIG community by sending respective information to the mailing list: seedig[at]rnids.rs

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Editorial note

The SEEsummary is produced on a best effort basis, by our team of volunteer editors. Each month, the editors scan local and regional media, as well as websites of public institutions and other organisations, and compile what they find to be some of the most significant digital policy developments.

The SEEsummary does not claim to be a comprehensive source of information. Despite our efforts, we may miss some things happening across the region. To help us cover as many significant developments as possible, we invite you to share with us news from your countries.

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