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Ukraine, EU, EU-integration, politics

Europe chooses Digital Sovereignty. What about Ukraine?

In mid-December the European Commission announced two draft laws on the regulation of the IT market. The Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act are intended to limit the influence of global Internet companies in the EU.

European officials define these initiatives as a tool that can ensure fair competition in the European IT market. The main “do’s” and “don’ts” for digital giants have been developed within these laws. There are some quite interesting positions in the documents:

  • companies are prohibited from “mixing” personal data from various platforms and using them for their own purposes without the consent of citizens;
  • platforms that refuse to obey and “threaten the lives and safety of people” may be temporarily banned;
  • users will be allowed to delete pre-installed software on their devices;
  • users can download software not only from official app stores (for example, iPhone owners will be no longer tied to the AppStore);
  • IT giant products should be available for users separately without any synchronization (for example, Gmail is not more required to create an Android account);
  • companies will have to inform the EU about planned mergers or takeovers.

For violation of the law the European Commission proposes fines up to 10% of the annual turnover of the company. For repeated violations regulators may force the IT giant to sell one of its enterprises or part of it.

The Acts also introduce a new term for large companies that provide access to digital products and services. In the legal language of the EU Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook will be called «gatekeepers». The list of such companies will be regularly updated: the main criteria is 45 million active users in the EU countries.

The document aims not only to protect business and fair competition. The Acts also regulate the storage of personal data, and other important issues which allows us to consider it as the first timid step of Brussels to disassociate itself from global Internet platforms in favor of digital sovereignty.

What is digital sovereignty?

With no doubts, independence from global IT companies has become one of the most pressing issues on the political agenda of most modern states. Countries define digital sovereignty in different ways and, according to the interpretation, form a set of measures to ensure it. The classic definition looks like this:

Digital (information) sovereignty is the right of the state to formulate information policy independently, manage information flows, and ensure information security regardless of external influence.

In modern conditions the independence of the state in this sphere is determined by the ability to ensure the safety of citizens’ personal data, force transnational IT companies to act within the national legislation and limit the distribution of banned content.

Anyway various governments began to think of strengthening digital sovereignty after the events of the Arab Spring. In 2011 the series of protests and coups in the Middle East was actively coordinated through social networks with offices in the United States while the Arab national governments had absolutely no control over the dissemination of often unsound information.

The discussion escalated in the beginning of the year, due to the storming of the U.S. Capitol when Twitter blocked the account of President Donald Trump. The de-facto private company closed the important communication channel of the current head of the state with the millions of his voters. This event divided American society into supporters and opponents. However, other governments, without any doubts, have concluded that it is necessary to control IT giants on their territory.

The experience of other countries

On October 1, Turkey adopted a law regulating the activities of social networks in the country. According to the new rules, platforms with a number of users of 1 million and more are to open representative offices in Ankara. By the decision of the Turkish court, resources also have to “clean up” illegal content within 48 hours. For violations social networks will be fined up to €4.3 million, advertising may also be blocked or access speed may be limited.

Turkey is also actively promoting its own payment system. The national TROY card was launched in 2016. Through TROY, Turkish citizens can pay for purchases or cash in ATMs. The number of transactions in 2018 amounted to 100 million for a total of $3.3 billion. Turkish leaders also plan to ensure the possibility of using its own system outside the country.

Russia is also taking active actions to implement the concept of digital sovereignty. Moscow is promoting its own payment system «Mir», stimulating the development of domestic IT products (for example, Yandex and Sber), localizing the storage of personal data within the country. Russia has its popular social platforms VKontakte and Odnoklassniki which are able to compete with foreign social networks.

As for foreign IT giants, the Kremlin has not yet found a universal tool for establishing control over them on its own territory. The Russian authorities have repeatedly fined American platforms for distributing objectionable content which social networks refused to remove. According to Russian law, the amount of fines for such violations is from $11 000 to $54 000. However, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are in no hurry to pay the fines.

Poland intensified work on national legislation in the field of digital sovereignty right after ban of Donald Trump’s accounts. The authorities have developed a package of laws. The part of the initiatives is the creation of the Council for the Protection of Freedom of Speech. The Council will monitor the observance of the constitutional rights of users of social networks. It will consider pre-trial cases of blocking content on the Internet and the reasons for deleting a particular publication. The Polish bill provides the possibility of filing a complaint in e-format for the removal of content which should be considered within seven days. The court’s decision must be implemented immediately. Otherwise the platform may be fined from $13 thousand to $13.5 million.

Is there anything like this in Ukraine?

As for now the Ukrainian authorities have not developed either a universal method of control over foreign platforms or a national payment system. In Ukraine there are no analogues of popular American social networks or other IT products of a national scale that could compete with world-famous brands. Ukraine uses regulation in the Internet only to ban Russian platforms. For example, Russian services Yandex, Mail.ru, VKontakte and Odnoklassniki have been banned in 2017. Moreover, relations with other well-known foreign platforms are not regulated at all.

At the same time, there are enough examples of how foreign social networks influenced the social and political processes in Ukraine, in particular, they provoked the growing popularity of neo-Nazi organizations. In January, the «Time» published an article examining the activity of Azov battalion in Facebook.

The authors noted that new members of the organization were recruited via social network. For a long time, the administration of the world’s largest platform turned a blind eye to the spread of radical ideology by Ukrainian users. Only in 2016, Facebook began to take measures against Ukrainian radicals and block accounts for “hate speech”. Despite this, many of them are still active and continue to split the Ukrainian society into “friends” and “foes”.

In mid-February, in the first reading the Verkhovna Rada approved a bill proposing to tax non-resident companies providing electronic services. Experts note the positive impact of the initiative in terms of unification of taxation and increased competition in the digital services market, but for users it can lead to higher subscription cost. Talking about the digital sovereignty, the law cannot be called a step forward. It does not regulate the distribution of content and does not make foreign platforms dependent on the Ukrainian state.

The realization of digital sovereignty is one of the most important question for governments with political will. Otherwise, the “keys” to the largest channels of communication, financial sphere and personal data will remain in foreign hands. And this, as Americans say, is a “threat to national security”. If Ukraine decides to regulate this undoubtedly vital sphere, the leaders of the country have much work to do.



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