SEEsummary #42 | October 2020

Issue no. 42 of the SEEsummary, published on 1 November 2020, by SEEDIG.

This issue covers Internet governance and digital policy developments that occurred in South Eastern Europe and the neighbouring area (SEE+) in October 2020. Also included: a list of upcoming events and opportunities in November. Country contributors to this issue: Katarina Gevorgyan, Aleksandra Ivanković, Vasile Popa, Sorina Teleanu. Editors: Meri Baghdasaryan, Aleksandra Ivanković, Neli Odishvili, Veronica Stefan. Coordination and final editing: Olga Kyryliuk. Design : Charalampos Kyritsis.

Telecommunications infrastructure

The Ministry of Infrastructure and Energy of Albania and the Ministry of Economy and Environment of Kosovo* signed the Memorandum of Cooperation on Creation of 5G Digital Corridor that will cover the Ibrahim Rugova highway, running from Kosovo* to the border of Albania. The memorandum became one of the four agreements signed between the governments during the joint meeting. So far, neither of the parties has a 5G network. Moreover, spectrum auctions were not initiated yet. At the same time, Albania has an agreement with telecom company Ericsson on networks’ modernisation, while Kosovo* committed to the White House not to use 5G equipment from “untrusted vendors”, which potentially might exclude cooperation with Huawei.

With 5G deployment gaining momentum on the public agenda, national governments join forces in various initiatives aimed at increasing citizens’ trust in the new technology. On one hand, 15 European Union (EU) member states, including Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, and Greece called for an EU strategy to combat disinformation and conspiracy theories related to 5G and the COVID-19 pandemic. They also stressed the importance of investment in research on health risks, awareness-raising campaigns, and open multistakeholder consultation that could offer solid arguments to counterparts opposing the technology. On the other hand, the number of countries joining the U.S. Clean Network initiative continues to increase, with Bulgaria, Kosovo, and North Macedonia joining the rows of signatories. The main goal of the initiative is to ensure that 5G networks are protected from untrusted vendors, with the trusted ones required to qualify under the criteria of independence from foreign governments, transparent ownership, respect for intellectual property rights, ethical corporate behavior, and some others.

Moldtelecom, the largest telecom provider in Moldova, successfully completed the first stage of the 4G LTE network expansion plan aimed at a four-times increase of network coverage throughout the country by the end of 2020. During the first phase of expansion, the new high-performance equipment was installed in the city of Chisinau and the district centres in the north of the country (Balti, Briceni, Donduseni, Falesti, Floresti, Glodeni, Rascani, Ocnita). Currently, the second stage of expansion is ongoing in the centre and south regions of Moldova. The 4G development plan is part of Moldtelecom’s strategy to ensure a superior experience in the use of services.

Cybersecurity & Cybercrime

Since October, the largest Russian Internet traffic exchange point MSK-IX pilots Data Escrow, offering the service to registrars in Russia’s country code top-level domains (ccTLDs) .RU and .РФ. Currently, MSK-IX is the only ICANN-accredited company for Data Escrow in Russia. The service is expected to provide additional security to registrar databases, ensure DNS stability, and serve as an additional guarantee for the protection of registrants’ rights in case of any malfunctions in the main registry. The initiative is supported by the Ministry of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media and is part of a larger effort to create a self-reliant sovereign Internet inside Russia. So far Registrar Data Escrow was mandatory only for generic top-level domain (gTLD) registries. The administrator of the .ДЕТИ domain, Smart Internet Foundation, was the first one to test the new service.

The Georgian police launched an investigation in the case of damage to fibre-optic cables of international importance. On two separate occasions, unidentified persons removed the soil and damaged the fibre-optic cables of underground telecommunication in Sadakhlo and Orozmani villages. The cable in Sadakhlo provides local residents with Internet services and is linked to the Internet supply system of Armenia, while the cable in Orozmani starts from the Black Sea and covers the route from Poti, Tbilisi, Bolnisi, Dmanisi, and up to Armenia. The connection issues were quickly resolved, while the investigation is still ongoing.

One of the largest telecom companies in Greece, Cosmote, announced that data of around five million Greek citizens, including the Prime Minister and some other high-rank officials, was leaked as a result of a cyberattack. The compromised data included phone numbers, day and time of the calls and their duration, as well as device type, users’ age, gender, and some technical information. At the same time, the stolen file contained neither message content, names, addresses, nor passwords or credit card information. So far the data was not published. The company presumes that the source of the attack was located outside the country, and that data was stolen for commercial advertising purposes. The investigation of this case is ongoing.

Access & Development

According to non-profit Internet observatory Netblocks, an Internet shutdown occurred in Azerbaijan as the situation intensified in the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The online platforms and services, such as Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, LinkedIn, Twitter, Zoom, Skype, were totally unavailable across the country. Users also experienced the slow down of Internet speeds. At some point, all websites with gov.az extension reportedly went down. Authorities claimed such critical measures were needed “to prevent large-scale provocations from Armenia” and to avoid situations when citizens could occasionally share sensitive military data online. Noteworthy that shutdowns regularly occur in countries involved in  conflict, with the most vivid examples being Venezuela, Yemen, Iraq, and India. But recently they became closer to SEE+ region (in previous issues of the SEEsummary we also reported about shutdowns in Belarus).

The Ministry of Finance of Serbia presented for public comment the Draft Law on Digital Property, targeting to ensure the country’s leadership in the field of financial technologies digitalisation in the SEE region and to create more favourable conditions for businesses. The draft law envisages, inter alia, the issuing of digital assets and secondary trading with digital assets; the provision of services connected to digital assets; pledge law over digital assets; special anti-money laundering measures related to digital assets; and initial public offerings of digital assets. It is technology-neutral and applies to any digital assets regardless of the underlying technology. At the same time, the representatives of the industry speak in favour of the draft subject to some improvements. They also mention that a lot would still depend on the by-laws that are yet to be adopted.

Privacy and data protection

Viber appointed Marković Vukotić Jovković Law Firm as its local representative in Serbia for matters related to personal data protection. This followed shortly after a Belgrade based non-profit human rights organisation, SHARE Foundation, filed misdemeanour complaint with the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection, asking to conduct an inspection regarding 16 global tech corporations and, where appropriate, to impose fines for their more than a year-long failure to appoint representatives to the country. 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. So far, Viber and Google are the only foreign companies that complied with the law.

The Romanian National Supervisory Authority for the Processing of Personal Data imposed two fines for the violation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). In particular, the online shopping company “Megareduceri TV SRL” was fined EUR 3000 in response to a complaint referring to its practice of sending promotional text messages to users who did not provide their consent for the usage of their mobile numbers for such purposes. Simultaneously, the Association of Military Owners was fined EUR 2000 for a failure to respond to a member’s request.

Content policy & Freedom of expression

According to Freedom House’s newly published report Freedom on the Net 2020: The Pandemic’s Digital Shadow, COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the deterioration of Internet freedom, which declined for the tenth consecutive year. The report, covering the period between June 2019 and May 2020, ranks countries from ‘0’ (least free) to ‘100’ (most free). The Internet freedom in the seven SEE+ countries assessed in the report is qualified as free in Georgia (with a total score of 76) and Armenia (75), partly free in Ukraine (61), and not free in Azerbaijan (38), Belarus (38), Turkey (35), and Russia (30). All countries applied at least some of the Key Internet Controls (KICs) during the monitored period, namely: blocking of social media or communications platforms (Russia, Turkey, Ukraine); blocking of political, social, or religious content (Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine); deliberate disruption of ICT networks (Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia); manipulation of online discussions by pro-government commentators (Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine); adoption of a new law or directive increasing censorship (Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia) or surveillance (Armenia); arrest or physical attack on blogger or ICT user for political or social content (Azerbaijan, Belarus, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine); and technical attacks against government critics or human rights organisations (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Russia, Turkey, Ukraine). For more information check detailed country reports.

New Global Expression Report 2019/2020, published by ARTICLE 19, shows that freedom of expression continues to decline and reached a record low point over the last decade. The Report reflects the rights of journalists, media, and activists, but also assesses the overall conditions for free expression and communication. Based on the freedom of expression score (from ‘0’ to ‘100’) all countries are divided into five categories: in crisis (score 0-19), highly restricted (20-39), restricted (40-59), less restricted (60-79), and open (80-100). The SEE+ countries and economies were ranked in the following way: open – Cyprus (84), Slovenia (83), Georgia (83), Greece (82), Armenia (81); less restricted – Bulgaria (71), Moldova (71), Romania (70), Croatia (66), Kosovo* (65), North Macedonia (65), Albania (63), Bosnia and Herzegovina (62); restricted – Montenegro (58), Serbia (48), Ukraine (40); highly restricted – Belarus (23); in crisis – Russia (14), Azerbaijan (9), and Turkey (6). For more detailed information consult the report.

A controversial law on social media, adopted by the Turkish Parliament in July 2020, entered into force on 1 October 2020. According to the law, international social media platforms are required to appoint a local representative in Turkey and promptly react to court orders on blocking or removal of content. Failure to comply with such orders could lead to fines up to 30 million Turkish Lira (approx. EUR 3.4 million) and bandwidth reductions making social media networks too slow. Reportedly, Facebook informed the Turkish government that it would not comply with the law. For more details about the law itself check issue No. 40 of the SEEsummary.

A court in Belarus declared Telegram channel NEXTA-Live as “extremist”, both for its logo and content (especially alleged calls for mass riots). NEXTA-Live has almost two million subscribers, is seen by many as an independent media source, and known for covering post-election protests in Belarus. In its decision, the court rendered to restrict access to all information resources distributing the logo and content of the banned Telegram channel, as well as to impose fines on all individuals and legal entities for the dissemination of such materials. The court’s decision became enforceable immediately and did not allow any further appeal, which was interpreted by the public as a violation of a regular procedure. Civil society organisations called this case to be an act of freedom of speech suppression and asked for a revision of the decision in line with international human rights standards.

Upcoming Opportunites

Upcoming deadlines

Mozilla Festival launched a call for session proposals for its 2021 edition. Organisers are welcoming proposals on a wide range of topics related to trustworthy AI and the Internet health movement subject to a condition that all sessions are shaped in a participatory, accessible, and inclusive way. Anyone, irrespective of the background, can submit a proposal, but for minors under the age of 16, their parent or guardian must complete the form. The deadline to submit the proposal is 24 November 2020. More information is available on the Mozilla Festival’s website.

European Dialogue on Internet Governance (EuroDIG) launched its call for issues in preparation for EuroDIG 2021. Subject matter areas include the following categories: access and literacy; human rights; security and crime; innovation and economic issues; media and content; technical and operational issues; development of the Internet governance ecosystem, etc. Issues can be submitted via the form on EuroDIG’s website by 6 December 2020. EuroDIG 2021 will take place on  28-30 June 2021 in a hybrid format, combining both onsite event in Trieste and remote meeting.

Upcoming events

2-17 November 2020 Online

5-6 November 2020 Online

9-13 November 2020 Online

15-19 November 2020 Online

16-20 November 2020 Online

18-19 November 2020 Tbilisi, Georgia | Online

23-24 November 2020 Online

24-26 November 2020 Online

25-26 November 2020 Online

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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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