SEEsummary #38 | May 2020

Issue no. 38 of the SEEsummary, published on 1 June 2020, by SEEDIG.

This issue covers Internet governance and digital policy developments that occurred in South Eastern Europe and the neighbouring area (SEE+) in May 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, Ana Jovanović, Marko Paloski, Vasile Popa, Mariam Tsiklauri. Editors: Meri Baghdasaryan, Grațiela Dumitrescu, Aleksandra Ivanković, Neli Odishvili, Veronica Ștefan. Coordination nad final editing: Olga Kyryliuk. Design : Charalampos Kyritsis

Telecommunications infrastructure

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the Broadband Foundation entered into a partnership with the aim to map the broadband infrastructure, services and investment opportunities in a number of countries throughout the region, namely in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Ukraine. The end goal is to accelerate the digital transformation and narrow the regional gap between the beneficiary countries and the European Union (EU) member states, including by strengthening the private sector and increasing opportunities for delivering public aid. The cooperation foresees assistance on technical requirements and system design, from a regulatory standpoint, in line with the efforts done by the EU and Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC). By 2022, the partnership is expected to produce guidelines on the establishment, improvement, maintenance, and utilisation of mapping systems.

Recently, the Hellenic Competition Commission (HCC) claimed oversight powers over the national telecom market, which are currently exercised by the National Telecommunications and Post Commission (EETT). The request was based on a report compiled by Finnish consultancy company Rewheel, which concluded that Greece is the most expensive country in telecoms within the EU and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), but also the only EU member state where the competition authority does not have monitoring powers over the telecom market. The EETT criticised the report for using contradictory data and flawed methodologies, and pointed out that it issued over 100 competition law decisions during the past 20 years, and invited all interested bodies to constructive dialogue.

Cybersecurity & Cybercrime

According to data published by Kaspersky, cybersecurity and anti-virus provider, the number of Armenian users who were affected by cyber-attacks increased by 12.17% during January–March 2020, as compared to the same period in 2019 (16.13%), and reached 28.3%. Moreover, in the first quarter of 2020, 38% of Armenian users were subjected to local cyber-threats as a result of 626 552 incidents, which is a slight decrease compared to the same period in 2019 (41%). Experts advise users to refrain from using flash drives and download malicious content, as well as to run reliable anti-virus software on their device.

During the curfew on 20 April 2020, the audio system of mosques in Izmir, a coastal city in Turkey, was hacked to play an Italian revolutionary song ‘Bella Ciao’ instead of a usual call to prayer. The Turkish Religious Authority Diyanet informed the prosecutor and requested a criminal investigation. It also suspended all calls to prayers until further notice. The police commenced an investigation and detained several people on charges of insulting religion. Local politicians condemned the hacking incident calling it a provocation.

Recent cyber-attacks exposed additional vulnerabilities of governmental websites in North Macedonia, in particular those belonging to the Ministry of Economy and Finance, municipalities of Skopje and Strumica, but also institutes and universities. The public disclosure happened after Greek hackers known as the ‘Powerful Greek Army’ leaked email addresses and passwords of staff working for the abovementioned public institutions. Reportedly, while the government announced further investigations and new measures, experts criticised weak responses to cyber-attacks, as well as outdated governmental operating systems, websites without security certificates, weak passwords, and lack of proper training on security protocols for staff. In addition, experts are calling for a stronger implementation of cybersecurity measures, more investments in hardware and software, as well as in cyber education for both information technology (IT) and non-IT-staff working in public institutions.

Access & Development

Supported by private medical centres, several organisations launched DokTok, the first platform for remote health consultations in Serbia. The platform gathers more than 150 general practitioners and specialists, from among practicing and retired health workers, who are providing professional advice about medications, causes, and symptoms of diseases, but only in cases that do not require urgent medical assistance and are not related to COVID-19. Users can reserve a 15-minute one-on-one conversation (chat, audio, or video) with a doctor every day from 10 am to 8 pm. The service is available free of charge. Noteworthy that DokTok is not a part of the official healthcare system but rather a place to get a quick professional consultation, while diagnosis and therapy can only be prescribed after a normal medical check. The platform uses end-to-end encryption, and the data shared with a doctor is not stored on the platform.

According to current data, approximately 78 000 socially vulnerable students in Georgia do not have access to the Internet. The charitable project ‘Charte’ (‘Connect’ in Georgian), launched by the US non-profit online platform GiveInternet.org, has brought 1 784 donors who collectively gathered 279 768 GEL (approximately USD 87 564) that were spent to connect 631 socially vulnerable high-school students to the Internet. By completing a simple registration form on the online platform anyone can either transfer money to cover monthly Internet access fees or donate laptops for unprivileged high school students, thus improving the quality of their social lives. Overall, 13 240 GEL (approximately USD 4 124) is needed monthly to cover the Internet fee for all registered students in Georgia. The determinant concept of the project is the idea that the Internet is a fundamental human right.

A Memorandum of Understanding establishing a high-level framework for cooperation in the area of information and communications technology (ICT) was signed between the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the Eastern Partnership Electronic Communications Regulators Network (EaPeReg), which bring together telecom regulators in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. The agreement covers several dimensions, including EaPeReg’s proactive participation in regional regulatory and economic meetings, as well as in ITU groups and events; support for countries covered by the ITU’s Europe office to align with the EU telecom regulations; and sharing experiences and building national capacities for accelerated digital transformation and achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The overall goal of the partnership is to create an enabling policy and regulatory environment for the sustainable development of the ICT sector.

Capacity development

Pursuant to the recommendations of the World Health Organisation, Georgia’s Innovation and Technology Agency (GITA) of the Ministry of Economy and Sustainable Development launched a couple of projects and modified certain components of the ongoing programmes in order to respond to COVID-19 by supporting innovation and citizens’ efforts to start entrepreneurial businesses online. The Small Grants Program tripled the amounts dedicated to prototyping projects (to up to GEL 15 000 – approximately USD 4 700) and incorporated a new e-services component allowing Georgian businesses to develop remote solutions. Additionally, GITA organised an online hackathon against COVID-19 to encourage the development of solutions to problems caused by the pandemic. It also launched free online courses for entrepreneurs, teaching them to create online platforms to support their businesses, as well as the basic functions of management and the principles of working with an audience.

During an online ceremony, the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus (NASB) and the Guangdong Provincial Academy of Sciences in China signed a framework agreement to establish the China-Belarus innovation center of industrial technologies. The main purpose of the center is to strengthen collaboration in science and technology under the Belt and Road Initiative. It will select and verify collaboration projects, conduct in-depth research and development (R&D), and transfer scientific and technical attainments. The center will also serve as an incubator for projects in science and technology. The parties expect that the center will contribute to systemic collaboration and exchange of advancements in the field.

The Office of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) collaborated with the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Belarus and mobile operator MTS in launching a series of free online safety webinars for parents, elementary school children, and teenagers. The first webinar focused on cybersecurity tips for child safety online, while the second webinar was dedicated to teaching teenagers how to deal with Internet trolls and resolve conflict. A stronger focus on online safety is explained by a high percentage of Internet users among children in Belarus (84% of kids between 6 and 10 years old and 98.1% of kids between 11 and 15 years old use the Internet), as well as the increased reliance on the Internet during COVID-19 pandemic. The webinars will continue in the upcoming months.

The Ministry of Education of Montenegro and telecom company Mtel signed an agreement to implement the Digital Classroom project aimed at the development of digital textbooks for the first grade of primary school in almost all subjects. The materials will be based on existing curricula and serve as a supplement for printed textbooks. The first phase of the project is expected to start in the next school year and should include 7 500 pupils in 500 classes, as well as 500 specially trained teachers. Moreover, the ministry intends to introduce the Internet in every classroom and equip all schools with computers.

Economic issues

According to draft laws presented to the Russian Parliament, individuals may be imprisoned for up to seven years and fined for up to USD 7 000 for using bitcoins in financial transactions, as well as for buying crypto with cash or making transfers to Russian banks accounts. One of the presented laws aims to prevent the usage of digital assets as a means of payment by citizens or companies. Additionally, ‘for violation of the rules for transactions with cryptocurrencies, if they are used as payment for goods or services,’ companies might pay the equivalent of one million Russian rubles (USD 13 900), and individuals at least 200 000 rubles (USD 2 800). Individuals who already hold digital assets will be required to register them with the Russian tax agency and clarify the sources of their origin. Another draft law suggests amending the criminal law by introducing liability for illegal operations with cryptocurrencies.

Privacy and data protection

Earlier in May, a Telegram chatbot was reported to be actively selling Ukrainians’ personal data allegedly leaked from the recently launched app Diia (which is a part of the government’s ‘State in Smartphone’ project aimed at the digitalisation of all state services). However, Ukraine’s Digital Transformation Ministry stated that Diia neither maintains a database nor accumulates personal data. The leaked data included, inter alia, information on 26 million drivers’ licenses, while only 6.5 million Ukrainians registered their driving licenses in Diia. In addition, a preliminary investigation revealed that the chatbot accumulated information from both new and old databases available on the darknet. The Ukrainian Security Service and the National Police are currently investigating the case.

In mid-May 2020, Prime Minister Andrej Plenković confirmed that Croatia is developing a contact tracing application in the effort to control the COVID-19 dissemination. Pursuant to the recommendations of the European Commission, the Croatian government adjusted to the suggested common European approach, calling for a voluntary application that monitors only patients’ contacts, and shifted from a previous plan to monitor mobile phones of all citizens. According to the state-owned company APIS IT, in charge of developing the app, this will send exposure notifications to everyone who was in close contact with a diagnosed person during the previous 14 days. All personal data is claimed to be stored only on users’ devices.

Google appointed the legal office BDK Advokati as its local representative in Serbia for matters related to personal data protection. Serbian Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection Milan Marinović welcomed this action. According to the Law on Personal Data Protection, which came into force in August 2019, all data controllers and processors without headquarters in Serbia are obliged to appoint their representatives in written form. Google is the only foreign company which has appointed its representative so far.

Content policy & Freedom of expression

Ahead of the parliamentary elections in Georgia scheduled for October 2020, the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED), an independent non-governmental organisation, revealed coordinated inauthentic activity on Facebook, including in total 116 fake pages, accounts, and groups, engaged in manipulating voters’ opinions in Georgia. The network of fake media accounts is considered to be abusing social media platforms to discredit opponents, silence critical voices, and spread disinformation. Additionally, false media pages have corresponding websites and YouTube channels, which altogether allows reaching a large audience of potential voters. According to ISFED, the political agenda of the fake news pages damages the media environment in the country and creates risks of electoral manipulation in social media ahead of the elections.

According to its April 2020 report on coordinated inauthentic behavior (CIB), Facebook identified a network of individuals in Russia, Donbas region in Ukraine, and two media organisations in Crimea, and removed in total 140 pages, accounts, and groups due to the violation of company’s policy against foreign or government interference (FGI). Posts in Russian, English, German, Spanish, French, Hungarian, Serbian, Georgian, Indonesian, and Farsi were related to topics varying from military conflict in Ukraine, Syrian civil war, and annexation of Crimea, to NATO, US elections, and more recently the coronavirus pandemic. Another network, originating from Iran and targeting, among others, Bosnian audiences, was taken down for FGI. Moreover, two more networks in Georgia were removed from Facebook platforms due to domestic-focused CIB. Namely, Georgian media firm Espersona typically posted about domestic news and political issues such as elections, government policies and officials, as well as criticism of the opposition, journalists and local activists. Another network coordinated by the political party United National Movement usually covered topics like the 2018 Georgian elections and candidates, Georgian Orthodox Church, criticism of the ruling party, and the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

On 14 May 2020, President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky approved a decision proposed by the National Security and Defense Council to extend a previously imposed ban on many Russian websites and social networks for three more years. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia described this step as a violation of human rights laws and principles and called on international organisations to react. The sanctions were first introduced by former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in 2017, which caused a wave of criticism both inside and outside the country.

Opportunities

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

Upcoming deadlines

The Internet Society is accepting nominations for the Jonathan B. Postel Service Award to honour an individual or organisation that made an outstanding contribution to the technological development of the Internet. Nominations should include nominee’s name and contact details, a CV, a recommendation that should emphasise specific achievements over a continuous period of time that qualify a candidate for the award, and at least two reference letters. Nominees do not have to be members of the Internet Society. The selected candidate will receive USD 20 000 and the signature crystal engraved globe at the Internet Engineering Task Force Meeting in Thailand. The nomination period ends on 5 June 2020 at 23:59 UTC.

The State Committee on Science and Technology of Belarus (SCST) and the Ministry of Science and ICT of the Republic of Korea launched a contest for projects focused on the priority areas of bilateral interest and related to nano and biotechnology, information and communication, aerospace, agro-industrial and industrial (industry 4.0) technologies, new materials, etc. The applications should include a business plan, written commitments of the state customer on the practical use of the results of research and development, and equity participation in financing. Completed forms should be submitted electronically to the SCST through the Expertise information and analytical system. The application deadline is 30 June 2020.

Armenia’s Ministry of High-Tech Industry launched a new online educational project Edutainment aimed at raising awareness on possible new professions in the high-tech domain. This project involves a series of online sessions that cover subjects such as augmented reality and virtual reality technologies, digital mindset, engineering, and software, and it would be equally useful for young people and professionals who are looking for a career change. The sessions will showcase success stories from specialists working in high-tech companies that could serve as models for newcomers in the field. The sessions will be streamed on the Ministry’s Facebook page and recorded videos will be published on its official YouTube channel. Sessions’ duration will vary from 30 to 40 minutes. The project officially started on 12 May 2020.

The Romanian Software Industry Association (ANIS) opened its scholarship programme to university lecturers and assistants. This year’s edition offers EUR 5 000 to applicants who have a proven record in developing new courses, practical labs, or methods focused on the following priority areas: Artificial Intelligence, HealthTech, Big Data, Machine Learning, Cybersecurity, Fintech or Tech for All (for non-IT universities). The programme’s goal is to facilitate a partnership between industry and academia and to support teachers in integrating new technologies and innovative teaching methods into the university curriculum. The applications can be submitted until September 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 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. UNESCO | Webinar on Human & Civil Rights Protection in Response to COVID-19 | 3 June 2020

  2. European Cluster Collaboration Platform | Webinar on Blockchain Use Cases in Healthcare | 3 June 2020

  3. IDC | Webinar on Turkey Future of Intelligence | 3 June 2020

  4. Internet Society | GPS World Webinar on Protecting Critical Infrastructure with Resilient Timing & Synchronization | 4 June 2020

  5. Center for European Policy Studies | COVID-19 and Collaborative Economy Webinar | 9 June 2020

  6. Security BSides Athens | 20 June | Athens, Greece (online due to COVID-19)

  7. European Digital SME Alliance | Digital SME live events | Every two weeks

  8. IBM | Free online courses

  9. BitDegree | Free online courses

  10. University of Edinburgh | Free short online courses

  11. Ministry of High-Tech Industry of Armenia & Russian-Armenian University | Basics of Programming two-month free online courses

  12. Digital Citizens Romania, Think Tank | Curated list of various free digital resources

  13. SAS | Free online trainings and one-month free data science courses

  14. SAP | OpenSAP platform

  15. Skillshare | 2-month Premium membership trial

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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