SEEsummary #39 | June 2020

Issue no. 39 of the SEEsummary, published on 1 July 2020, by SEEDIG.

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

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

Telecommunications infrastructure

The State Secretary of the Serbian Ministry of Trade, Tourism and Telecommunications, Ms Tatjana Matić, announced the launch of a project for the construction of a broadband communication infrastructure in rural areas of Serbia. The project calculations are based on the findings of an assessment and mapping conducted over the course of the previous two years. According to this analysis, five percent of households (almost 125 000 households) do not have fixed access to the Internet. Bridging the digital divide is considered by the ministry as a significant measure contributing to GDP growth and improvement of the employment rates. During the first phase of the project, planned to kick-off in spring 2021,access to high-speed Internet (100 Mbps) will be provided to 90 000 households. As for now, the ministry is starting with the selection of operators.

After the law on sovereign Russian Internet or Runet entered into force in November 2019, the Ministry of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media of Russia set a four-phase timeline for testing the resiliency, security and integrity of the Russian segment of Internet. The first phase, initially scheduled for 20 March 2020, was postponed due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Same happened to the second phase of testing planned for 20 June 2020. The next testing phases are supposed to take place on 20 September and 20 December 2020 but the whole schedule will most likely be reviewed. It is noteworthy that the Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) tests required by the law and conducted in the Ural region in December 2019 revealed a decrease of signal speed and quality.

Cybersecurity & Cybercrime

According to media reports, Azerbaijani hackers leaked the personal data of almost 3 500 COVID-19 infected Armenian patients and people who were in direct contact with them. Allegedly, the released personal data belong to patients from Armavir province. It is reported that this case has no connection with the earlier leakage of data of the people who passed away from coronavirus. The National Security Service of Armenia launched an investigation to clarify the situation with leakage of personal data and identify the perpetrators.

The Minister of State and Digital Governance of Greece, Mr Kyriakos Pierrakakis, and the Director General of the Israel National Cyber Directorate, Mr Yigal Unna, issued a joint statement outlining a bilateral framework for cooperation on cybersecurity. The two countries have agreed to strengthen cooperation in the field of cybersecurity through: engaging in operational dialogue on cybersecurity-related issues; launching joint projects for enhancing national cyber-platforms; cooperating on workforce training initiatives; and increasing cyber-resilience by sharing cybersecurity know-how, good practices, and strategic insight.

Infosec specialists from the Romanian based security company Bitdefender identified a new Agent Tesla campaign aimed to install espionage threats on computers belonging to the Romanian public institutions. The attackers used names of well-known public and private delivery companies to convince users of the legitimacy of the received emails. Once the victim accesses the link or the infected document from the apparently innocuous email, the threat is installed on the computer and allows the attacker to access information on the device. Moreover, the threat remains hidden on the system and evades the firewall, while at the same time transmitting passwords, making printscreens, and sending victims’ credentials used to access various platforms. Additionally, Agent Tesla was recently identified in a global espionage campaign against the oil and gas industry. To protect from attacks, Bitdefender recommends users to pay attention to emails before clicking or downloading documents, avoid accessing emails from suspicious senders, apply a performant firewall, use work devices only for professional purposes, and avoid installing apps or programs for personal use.

Access & Development

In June, Minsk authorities tested free Wi-Fi on one of the city tram routes, as part of a broader plan to cover with free Wi-Fi connection all means of public transportation in Belarusian capital. The initiative is not only aimed at making the experience of using public transport more user friendly, but also at introducing the digitalisation of ticket purchase and verification processes that would be available through passengers’ smartphones. The project is implemented through a public-private partnership. While the Wi-Fi access will be grated for free, the service provider will monetise the advertisements displayed after users sign into the network.

In an attempt to eliminate bureaucracy and decrease citizens’ visits to the city halls, Greece started digitalising the issuance of civil status acts, such as birth certificates, family status or citizenship documents. Citizens can obtain such acts by simply logging in to reg.services.gov.gr with the TaxisNet passwords. Each act has a digital stamp with a unique QR code, which is scanned for the verification of the document before its official use. Certificates and excerpts from the registers can be sent electronically or printed upon request.

The new Digital Economy and Society Index 2020 (DESI) of the European Union (EU) measures the progress of digital transformation in the EU member states under five main dimensions: connectivity, human capital, use of the Internet, integration of technology and digital public services. At first glance, all SEE countries rank below the EU average, with Slovenia leading among them (16th position), followed by Croatia (20th), Romania (26th), Greece (27th) and Bulgaria (28th). At a closer look, the index offers more details on the status of the digital economy and society across the region. Thus, connectivity is the only dimension where a SEE country – Romania – is above the EU average, ranking 11th out of 28 EU countries, with high scores in broadband price and 5G readiness. Under the human capital dimension, the region demonstrates good potential with Croatia (13th) and Slovenia (15th) leading. In terms of ICT graduates, both Romania (5th) and Croatia (6th) have the highest scores, while Bulgaria performs better for female ICT specialists (6th). With regard to Internet use, the situation is much worse, as Bulgaria, Greece, Croatia and Romania appeared in the bottom five EU countries with the largest shares of citizens who have never used the Internet. Involvement of citizens in online courses is also extremely low in these countries, with the worst result shown by Bulgaria (3.39%). Under the dimension of digital technology integration by companies, Croatia has made an important progress to the 12th position in 2020 as compared to 17th in 2019. It was closely followed by Slovenia (15th). On top of the constant progress of both countries in all sub-dimensions, they are particularly well positioned under the criterion of companies selling online cross-border (Slovenia – 7th, Croatia – 9th). Moreover, Slovenia ranks the highest (17th) among all analysed SEE countries in terms of digital public services, and above the EU average for open data and online service completion

During the lockdown, the number of citizens in Romania that started using Ghiseul.ro, the online payment system for taxes, increased significantly, with 166 183 new accounts being registered. To compare, during normal times the platform gets around 110 000 new users in the first quarter of the year. Currently, 660 000 users pay their taxes through the platform, out of each 8 700 are legal persons. Around half of the population of the country have their personal details in the system. In terms of territorial coverage, out of 3 200 administrative units in Romania, only 400 are enrolled in the system, usually representing the largest cities. One main challenge for the remaining 2 800 units relates to the high costs of connecting the city hall system to Ghiseul.ro; although the system is free, the providers charge fees for connection to the platform.

The Balkan Barometer 2020 of the Regional Cooperation Council sheds light on how businesses in six economies across the Western Balkans (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo*, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia) perceive the digitalisation of the public sector. Compared to last year, there is a slight deterioration in terms of the business sector’s satisfaction with the digitalisation of public services. Overall, half of the businesses surveyed indicated that they are satisfied with the digital services provided by public administrations. But, at a closer look, businesses in Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, and Kosovo* have perceived a drop in the quality of digital public services, while the quality of such services in Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia seems to have improved. It is also worthwhile noting that over 80% of the respondents see digitalisation of public services as an opportunity to curb corruption within public institutions (through greater transparency and accountability).

Capacity development

The Minister of Innovation and Technological Development of Serbia, Mr Nenad Popovic, opened two Regional Innovation Startup Centres in Uzice and Priboj with the aim to provide equal opportunities for innovators across the country. In the centres, young entrepreneurs and startup companies will have access to modern IT equipment, as well as receive mentorship support and training on successful performance on the domestic and foreign markets. The projects were launched by the municipal councils in cooperation with local industrial and development agencies and with the financial support of the Cabinet of the Minister of Innovation and Technological Development. The centre in Uzice occupies 422 square meters and requires a total investment of over 60 million dinars (approximately EUR 510 423). The Priboj centre is 157 square meters bigger with a lower investment of 42 million serbian dinars  (approximately EUR 357 222). It is expected that the startup centres will contribute to the development and digitalisation of the economy of Uzice and Priboj. Similar centres are planned to be opened in four other cities.

The Health Minister of Georgia, Mrs Ekaterine Tikaradze, presented her new ‘assistant’ – Robot Pepper. Produced in France, it learns Georgian and assists the Ministry in the fight against the coronavirus. Pepper is a high tech artificial intelligence robot created by SoftBank Robotics, a company specialising in production of humanoid robotics. Pepper can serve as a medical assistant, organise video conferences, connect patients with doctors, prepare patients’ medical history, as well as exercise awareness raising functions by informing citizens about various services and rules. In 2020, the Ministry of Health plans to improve the level of telemedicine and mobilise the information infrastructure, including through using computer technologies and telecommunications to exchange medical data between the doctors. Additionally, a part of pharmaceutical services will be digitised allowing to improve control over the medicines quality. 

Greek non-profit organisation Agoni Grammi Gonimi along with Microsoft Hellas and digital business agency ATCOM, with the support of the Greek Tourism Ministry, developed a platform for tourists with special needs – ‘Extra Milers’. The purpose of this initiative is to create an information network to help people with permanent or temporary disabilities to visit the Greek islands. The platform includes a website and an application, and is addressed primarily to the visually impaired and people with mobility disabilities. Internet users are offered to create a profile on ‘Extra Milers’ based on their personal needs and discover the services that are available according to their interests. The platform will also be enhanced with new applications based on artificial intelligence (for example speech-to-text conversion apps, face recognition and text analysis), in order to improve the experience of its users.

Privacy and data protection

At the end of May, Serbia’s ratification of the Protocol amending the Convention 108 for the Protection of Individuals Regarding the Processing of Personal Data entered into forceLater in June, Romania signed this same protocol. The amending protocol, colloquially referred to as the Convention 108+, was adopted in May 2018 with the aim to better address emerging privacy challenges related to the use of new information and communication technologies and to strengthen the implementation of the Convention adopted in 1981. Changes introduced in 2018 include new obligations for data controllers (e.g. guaranteeing the transparency of data processing and notifying of security breaches) and rights for data subjects (e.g. the right to obtain knowledge of the reasoning underlying the data procession, and the right not to be subject to a decision based solely on automated processing, without taking the data subject’s views into consideration).

Content policy & Freedom of expression

In Armenia, the non-governmental organisation Public Journalism Club and the web and app development company Vecto.digital launched the ‘Armenia Alert Channel’. It is an artificial intelligence chatbot service that provides verified news related to COVID-19 in Armenian. The chatbot relies on data published by the World Health Organization and the Commandant’s Office of Armenia and is aimed at ensuring quick access to official and reliable information. Questions are already available for selection in the chatbot menu, and once a user makes a choice the chatbot assistant directs them to the relevant news sections, such as Statistics of Armenia, News, Announcements, Travel Restrictions, etc. At the moment, the chatbot is available on Facebook, while the same services for Telegram and WhatsApp are underway.

The Romania’s National Council for Combating Discrimination (CNCD) fined Google Romania for a failure to provide timely response to the name change of the biggest Orthodox church in the country, which occured on Google Maps. The issue arose when the People’s Salvation Cathedral was renamed into the People’s Fooling Cathedral on Google Maps, and the modification remained unchanged for a few days. The anti-discrimination agency unanimously decided that it was an act of discrimination and a violation of the right to dignity. Besides the fine of around EUR 2 000, the CNCD obliged Google Romania to publish the summary of its decision on the first page of the Google site (the Romanian version)’ for ten days, and recommended that ‘Google Bucharest’ translate the code of conduct into Romanian and make the reporting system more accessible. Noteworthy that it is for the first time in Romania when a public institution asks Google to change its front page.

Russia’s telecom watchdog Roskomnadzor, upon agreement with the Prosecutor General’s Office, lifted a two-year ban on Telegram after the company expressed readiness to cooperate with authorities in the field of counterterrorism. The messenger app was blocked in 2018 upon allegations of being used by terrorist organisations, and in response to the company’s refusal  to hand over the encryption keys to Roskomnadzor. This act was found to be in violation of the Russian anti-terrorism laws. However, the ban proved to be futile, with the Telegram users’ base becoming twice larger and reaching 400 million monthly active users over the past two years. Moreover, despite the ban some of the governmental authorities have official channels on Telegram.

A report from the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) reveals that the Internet scores low among the trusted sources of COVID-19-related information in Western Balkans. This year, the RCC focused its annual Balkan Barometer on the impact of the COVID-19, trying to observe the perspectives and sentiments of citizens from the Western Balkans (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo*, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia) in the context of the recent developments deriving from the pandemic. When asked about the sources of information they have most confidence in with regard to the accuracy of information they provide on the coronavirus, most respondents from the region indicated the Internet and social media among the less trustworthy sources. On the other side, medical professionals and government officials were identified as the most reliable sources of information.

Opportunities

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

Upcoming deadlines

The European Union and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in partnership with the Belarusian Ministry of Economy announced the launch of the Startup School, an online programme for entrepreneurs. The programme consists of a video course, materials and individual counseling on topics such as business planning, legal foundations and taxation. Participants with successfully prepared business plan concepts will have individual consultations with business experts. Access to the video course and materials is available after registration here.

Microsoft Teams was translated into Georgian, thus becoming more accessible to 55 000 Georgian schoolteachers and 600 000 school children. Moreover, Microsoft Educational Portal, which contains educational resources, including video lessons, is now also available in Georgian. While the Georgian online library el.ge is already integrated on the portal, an interactive chatbot and an electronic magazine in Georgian are expected to be added soon. Back in late March, the Georgian government moved all educational processes to a remote teaching format to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Google announced the launch of Google for Nonprofits in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cyprus, and Ukraine, giving these organisations free-of-charge access to Google’s technology and services, such as G-Suite, free premium features on Youtube, access to Google Earth, Google Maps tools and Google Ad Grants programme. Government entities or organisations, hospitals, academic institutions are not eligible for this programme. To get access to the above services, non-profit organisations should make a request to Google for a non-profit account and complete the registration.

The first ever online Russian Summer School on Internet Governance is organised by the Coordination Centre for TLD .RU/.РФ in cooperation with the Faculty of international relations of the Saint Petersburg State University and will take place in-between 1 August and 31 September 2020. The programme will commence with an introductory phase after which around 30 most active participants will move to the main course phase, studying and discussing such topics as Internet governance ecosystem, open standards, net neutrality, etc. Students, young professors, researchers and any specialists interested in the field of Internet governance are welcome to apply. Participation is free of charge and acknowledged by a certificate. The registration for Summer School is open starting from 1 July 2020.

Free online events, courses and tools for remote work

Due to the COVID-19 crisis, face-to-face events that have been scheduled for the month of June 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.

We also encourage you to share any relevant online events and digital tools that you are aware of with the SEEDIG community by sending  information to the mailing list: seedig[at]rnids[at]rs

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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.

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