SEEsummary #50

July & August 2021

Issue no. 50 of the SEEsummary, published on 2 September 2021, by SEEDIG. This issue covers Internet governance and digital policy developments that occurred in South Eastern Europe and the neighbouring area (SEE+) in July and August 2021. Also included: a list of upcoming events in September and personal development opportunities.

Country contributors to this issue: Maja Ćalović, Grațiela Dumitrescu, Katarina Gevorgyan, Marko Paloski, Vasile Popa. Editors: Meri Baghdasaryan, Maja Ćalović, Grațiela Dumitrescu, Olga Kyryliuk, Neli Odishvili. Coordination and final editing: Olga Kyryliuk. Design: Charalampos Kyritsis.

Telecommunications infrastructure

The National Agency for Regulation in Electronic Communications and Information Technology of Moldova (ANRCETI) received a single expression of interest in its call for applications for radio frequencies licenses in 450 MHz, e900 MHz, and 2600 MHz bands. According to the agency, only one company out of the three mobile telephony operators on the market took part in the competition, which led to a significant decrease in expected revenue. Instead of EUR 8.6 million, the Moldovan government received the minimum price of EUR 6 600 offered by national telecom company Moldtelecom for the five-year license for mobile services in CDMA standard. Initially, mobile operator Moldcell was interested in participating in the tender but requested a reduced license price, which authorities found unacceptable.

Privacy and data protection

In Montenegro and North Macedonia, business owners and data protection experts raised concerns about potential violations of personal data law while complying with new COVID-19 measures requiring staff at hospitality venues to check customers’ vaccination certificates on entry. Montenegro’s Agency for Personal Data Protection warned that such checks might lead to unauthorised persons obtaining citizens’ healthcare data, which only authorised medical personnel should be able to see according to law. Business owners in North Macedonia said that they are worried that customers could later sue them for breaching their medical privacy if the measures are implemented. Measures in both countries were tightened amid a new spike of COVID-19 cases.

Russia adopted a law requiring foreign tech companies with over 500 000 Russian users daily to establish legal representation in the country. According to authorities, at least 20 companies will have to go local, including YouTube, WhatsApp, Instagram and Telegram. Failure to open a Russian office will result in penalties ranging from an advertising ban to being fully blocked in Russia. The bill was signed into law on 1 July 2021, but the requirement to set up local offices will enter into force on 1 January 2022.

Tagansky District Court of Moscow fined Google three million rubles (approx. USD 41 017) for violating the data protection law by storing personal data of Russian users outside of Russia. It is the second company’s fine, with the first one imposed for failing to remove banned content at the beginning of the year. Moreover, the court opened similar administrative proceedings against the two social media companies, Twitter and Facebook, for repetitive failure to localise users’ data. This time, the fines might reach up to RUB 18 million.

Content policy

In a recent report, BIRN and SHARE Foundation revealed over 800 cases of digital rights violations in Southeast and Central Europe between August 2019 and December 2020, including restrictions of freedom of speech, privacy breaches and dissemination of disinformation. The report covers such countries as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, North Macedonia, Hungary, Romania and Serbia. Noteworthy that all these countries held elections during the coverage period and demonstrated a negative trend in abusing digital space for fake news propaganda, hate-fuelled conspiracy theories, and misinformation in support of offline anti-democratic processes. Moreover, governments used the pandemic to curb freedom of expression and misuse health data. The monitoring showed that action was taken only in 21 percent of cases and predominantly presumed the deletion of posts and comments. The full report is available here.

The Ukrainian President signed a new sanctions’ order of the

National Security and Defence Council affecting 12 Russian companies, including Rostelecom, Versiya, Business News Media, TRK-3, Historical Perspective Research Foundation, Mutual Assistance Association for Charitable Assistance, and others. The restrictions presume to block access to the above companies’ websites and sub-domains. Additionally, an opposition news website, strana.ua, was banned as part of sanctions against its editor for publishing “pro-Russia propaganda”. OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Teresa Ribeiro expressed concerns regarding Ukraine’s practice of applying sanctions that negatively affect the work of media outlets and journalists. 

The Ministry of Information of Belarus ordered blocking the largest social media platforms, including Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, VKontakte and Odnoklassniki. Additionally, Belarusian authorities blocked the website of Nasha Niva, the oldest Belarusian media outlet with over 100 000 online audiences, for spreading unspecified unlawful information and arrested its journalists and several reporters from other news organisations. According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, 27 Belarusian journalists are currently in custody, either serving their sentences or awaiting trial.

Twitter labelled several popular Serbian media accounts as “state-affiliated”, including newspapers Srpski Telegraf, Kurir, Informer, Politika, news agency Tanjug, and all five national television channels. According to Twitter, “state-affiliated media is defined as outlets where the state exercises control over editorial content through financial resources, direct or indirect political pressures, and/or control over production and distribution”. Serbian State Television called Twitter’s decision “political” and threatened to stop posting any materials on the platform. In its turn, the tabloid Informer called Twitter “a war propaganda machine”. Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic referred to Twitter’s move as censorship and challenged the company to deactivate his account.

The Freedom of Expression Association released a 2020 annual report on increasing Internet censorship in Turkey – “Fahrenheit 5651: The Burning Effect of Censorship”. According to the report findings, as of the end of 2020, 467 011 websites, 150 000 URL addresses, 7 500 Twitter accounts, 50 000 tweets, 12 000 YouTube videos, 8 000 Facebook posts and 6 800 Instagram posts remained blocked in the country. In total, 75 292 social media accounts were investigated in 2020, and legal action was taken in 32 000 cases. After the July 2020 amendments to Internet Law No. 5651, content takedowns increased to 81 percent. In 2021, the rate is expected to increase further. COVID-19 further exacerbated the situation with digital rights and online activities.

Cybersecurity and cybercrime

Russia submitted to the United Nations its proposal for a new global treaty to combat cybercrime. Back in 2001, Russia did not sign the Council of Europe Budapest Convention allegedly because it infringes national sovereignty by envisaging cross-border collaboration and criminalises only nine cyber offences. In the draft proposal “United Nations Convention on Countering the Use of Information and Communications Technologies for Criminal Purposes”, Russia suggests criminalising 23 cybercrimes. Overall, the member states just recently agreed on procedures and rules for treaty negotiations. The substantive discussion of the text is expected to start in early 2022.

Cybercriminals attacked the official website of the Court of Accounts, the supreme audit institution of Moldova, which main task is to perform audits of public financial resources and government agencies to comply with international standards. It was the first time the institution faced a cyberattack that significantly disrupted its website functioning. However, according to its official statement, servers, information systems, e-mail, and Intranet were not affected in any way, thus keeping the most critical records safe. Noteworthy that the disruption happened during the ongoing resonant audits at the stage of public reporting. The institution promised to use other communication channels to keep the public aware of the most recent developments in its work. The Court of Accounts remains confident that the investigations will identify whether the attack occurred occasionally, for blackmailing purposes or was explicitly planned to cause impediments in the institution’s activity.

The State Election Commission of North Macedonia adopted the Strategic Plan for IT that envisages the creation of an expert security group, including representatives of the Ministry of Interior Cybercrime Unit, Personal Data Protection Agency, Internet service providers, computer science faculties and others. The group’s primary task is a joint assessment of risks and elaboration of possible risk mitigation scenarios. This move to strengthen the institution’s cyber resilience comes in response to cyberattacks on the Election Commission’s server during the 2020 parliamentary elections. The group has around two months to set up prevention and reaction mechanisms before the local elections on 17 October 2021.

Access & Development

According to the 2019 Regional Roaming Agreement, Western Balkan countries abolished roaming charges from 1 July 2021. The new roaming regime “Roam Like at Home” allows citizens of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo*, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia to make phone calls and send messages across the region without any restrictions while paying the same prices as in their home countries.  However, Internet fees depend on the provider and the tariff plan. Therefore, it is recommended for travellers to check their tariffs before using the Internet abroad. The new policy is hailed as a “historic achievement of cooperation” and a “stepping stone in the digital transformation of the region”. The next step will be the preparation for reducing roaming charges between the EU and the Western Balkans.

In the beginning of July, Armenia’s Acting Minister of High-Tech Industry and Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Hellenic Republic to Armenia met to discuss the establishment of joint tech companies, expansion of cooperation and opportunities for knowledge exchanges. They also considered cooperation between the Armenian Venture Fund and Hellenic Ventures, as well as between Armenian and Greek technoparks. The Armenian Acting Minister invited the Ambassador to participate in the “Digitech Expo”, “ArmHighTech” international armaments and defence technology exhibitions and offered a joint visit to “Engineering City”. Later the same month, the Minister and Children of Armenia Fund’s (COAF) Smart Center signed a memorandum of understanding to jointly advance rural communities by boosting the resolution of multisectoral issues, ensuring access to high-speed Internet connection and services, developing technological capacities and infrastructures

Capacity development

Armenian tech company Krisp and Yerevan State University (YSU) signed a memorandum of understanding to establish YSU Krisp AI Lab. YSU students will have the chance to gain knowledge on artificial intelligence (AI) and publish articles on AI under the supervision of Krisp’s academic team members. The lab aims at connecting academia with business and strengthening the AI academic school in Armenia.

The Ministry of Innovation and Technological Development of Serbia opened two new regional innovation centres – Smart City Centre in Mali Zvornik and Startup Centre on Zlatibor. The Ministry allocated RSD 20 million (approx. USD 201 067) for setting up and equipping each centre. They will provide learning, mentoring, and fundraising opportunities to young entrepreneurs and innovators working on digital solutions, particularly in tourism, agriculture, and environmental protection. The centre in Mali Zvornik will also open its doors to young people from Republika Srpska. The two newly opened innovation centres join Serbia’s integrated innovation ecosystem with over 20 start-up and smart city centres and technology parks in Novi Sad, Belgrade, Nis, and Cacak aimed to stimulate the development of local communities.

Cooperation

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) will hold its next Plenipotentiary Conference (PP-22) in Bucharest, Romania. Between 26 September and 14 October 2022, the Palace of the Parliament will open its doors to the PP-22 participants. The event occurs every four years and includes strategic sessions on general ITU policies and adopting the four-year strategic and financial plans. During the next Plenipotentiary Conference, the participants will elect the ITU’s next Secretary-General, Deputy Secretary-General and Directors of the ITU sectoral bureaux, as well as the next ITU Council, which acts as a governing body between plenipotentiary conferences.

Upcoming opportunities

Upcoming deadlines

The United Nations (UN) Internet Governance Forum (IGF) is inviting nominations from all ‎stakeholder and regional groups for the 2022 IGF Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) and the MAG Chair according to the ‎established ‎principles and practices of MAG rotation and selection of its members. The MAG terms ‎of reference, including individual member responsibilities, group procedure, and the composition ‎of the MAG is available on the IGF website.  Interested candidates should submit applications via an online submission template ‎by 10 September ‎‎2021.

The Coordination Center for TLD .RU/.РФ is inviting schoolchildren and university students under the age of 18 to register for the 10th Explore the Internet & Govern It Russian Online Championship. The virtual competition will take place from 9 to 25 November 2021. The tasks will be dedicated to digital government, digital economy, security of the digital state, e-education, smart cities, and a special topic related to 20-year anniversary of the Coordination Center for TLD .RU/.РФ. Interested candidates should register by 8 November 2021.

Upcoming events

SEEDIG 7 Series | SEE Sustainable Future: Twinning Green and Digital | 6 September 2021 | Online

Digital (and) Diplomacy: What Are We Actually Talking About? | 7 September 2021 | Online

ICANN’s DNS 101 training webinar | 8 September 2021 | Online

How Augmented Humanity Techs Are Elevating Human Skills and Bringing Digital Disruption in Europe | 9 September 2021 | Online

ITU Network of Women (NoW) for Europe Women in Leadership Training on Impact and Influence | 9 September 2021 | Online

Realising the European Digital Decade 2021 | 14 September 2021 | Online

Data for Policy 2021 | 14-16 September 2021 | Online

Cyber Resilience and Protecting Critical information infrastructure | Asia and the Pacific and CIS Interregional Meeting | 15 September 2021 | Online

TLDCON 2021 | 15-16 September 2021 | Online

European Peering Forum 2021 | 20-22 September 2021 | Online

5th CIS & CEE Spectrum Management Conference | 20-22 September 2021 | Online

AI ​​Conference Kyiv | 20-22 September 2021 | Online

15th International Conference: Keeping Children and Young People Safe Online | 20-24 September 2021 | Online

Regional Innovation Forum for Europe | 22-23 September 2021 | Online

Techsylvania 2021. Explore Today. Innovate Tomorrow | 22-23 September 2021 | Online

NamesCon | 22-24 September 2021 | Online

IDC Future of Work Summit 2021 | 23 September 2021 | Online

SEE 9 – RIPE NCC Regional Meeting | 28 September 2021 | Online

IDC Tech Pulse Days | 29-30 September 2021 | Online, Romania

The Future of Our Digital World Summit | 30 September 2021 | Online

Editorial note

The SEEsummary is produced on a best effort basis, by our team of volunteer editors and contributors. 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.