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Coronavirus: EU strengthens action to tackle disinformation

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EU Commission and the High Representative are assessing their steps to fight disinformation around the coronavirus pandemic and are proposing a way forward. This follows the tasking by European leaders in March 2020 to resolutely counter disinformation and reinforce resilience of European societies. The coronavirus pandemic has been accompanied by a massive wave of false or misleading information, including attempts by foreign actors to influence EU citizens and debates. The Joint Communication analyses the immediate response and proposes concrete action that can be quickly set in motion.

High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell said: “Disinformation in times of the coronavirus can kill. We have a duty to protect our citizens by making them aware of false information, and expose the actors responsible for engaging in such practices. In today’s technology-driven world, where warriors wield keyboards rather than swords and targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns are a recognised weapon of state and non-state actors, the European Union is increasing its activities and capacities in this fight.”

Vice-President for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová said: “Disinformation waves have hit Europe during the Coronavirus pandemic. They originated from within as well as outside the EU. To fight disinformation, we need to mobilise all relevant players from online platforms to public authorities, and support independent fact checkers and media. While online platforms have taken positive steps during the pandemic, they need to step up their efforts. Our actions are strongly embedded in fundamental rights, in particular freedom of expression and information.”

The crisis has become a test case showing how the EU and its democratic societies deal with the disinformation challenge. The following aspects are key for a stronger and more resilient EU:

Understand: First, it is important to distinguish between illegal content and content that is harmful but not illegal. Then, there are blurred boundaries between the various forms of false or misleading content: from disinformation, which is defined as intentional, to misinformation, which can be unintentional. The motivation can range from targeted influence operations by foreign actors to purely economic motives. A calibrated response is needed to each of these challenges. Furthermore, there is a need to provide more data for public scrutiny and improve analytical capacities.

Communicate: During the crisis, the EU has been stepping up its work to inform citizens about the risks and to enhance cooperation with other international actors to tackle disinformation. The Commission has been rebutting myths around the coronavirus, which have been viewed more than 7 million times. The European External Action Service, together with the Commission, enhanced strategic communication and public diplomacy in third countries, including the EU’s neighbourhood. Foreign actors and certain third countries, in particular Russia and China, have engaged in targeted influence operations and disinformation campaigns in the EU, its neighbourhood, and globally. For example, the EEAS East Stratcom Task Force detected and exposed more than 550 disinformation narratives from pro-Kremlin sources on the EUvsDisinfo website.

Cooperation has been an important cornerstone of the fight against disinformation:

  • With the European Parliament and the Council and between EU institutions and Member States, by using established channels, such as the Rapid Alert System and the EU integrated political crisis response. These channels will be further developed to strengthen capacities, to improve risk analysis and vital reporting in times of crisis.  
  • With international partners, including the WHO, the G7 Rapid Response Mechanism, NATO and others. This led to an increased sharing of information, activities and best practices. It should be intensified to better address foreign influence and disinformation. 
  • The EU will step up support and assistance to civil society actors, independent media and journalists in third countries as part of the ‘Team Europe’ package, and enhance support for monitoring violations of press freedom and advocacy for a safer media environment. 
  • Finally, many consumers were misled to buy overpriced, ineffective or potentially dangerous products, and platform have removed millions of misleading advertisements. The Commission will continue to cooperate with online platforms and support the Consumer Protection Cooperation network of national authorities to fight these practices that infringe consumer protection law.

Transparency: The Commission has closely monitored the actions of online platforms under the Code of Practice on Disinformation. There is a need for additional efforts, increased transparency and greater accountability:

  • Platforms should provide monthly reports that include more detailed data on their actions to promote authoritative content, improve users’ awareness, and limit coronavirus disinformation and advertising related to it. They should also step up their cooperation with fact-checkers – in all Members States, for all languages – and researchers, and be more transparent about implementation of their policies to inform users that interact with disinformation. 
  • The Commission strongly encourages other relevant stakeholders that are not yet signatories to the Code to participate in this new monitoring programme.
  • Building on the work of the newly established European Digital Media Observatory, the EU will further strengthen its support to fact-checkers and researchers.

Ensuring freedom of expression and pluralistic democratic debate is central to our disinformation response. The Commission will continue monitoring the impact of emergency measures taken by Member States in the coronavirus context, on EU law and values. The crisis demonstrated the role of free and independent media as an essential service, providing citizens with reliable, fact-checked information, contributing to saving lives.The EU will strengthen its support to independent media and journalists in the EU and around the world.The Commission calls upon Member States to intensify efforts to ensure that journalists can work safely and to make the most of the EU’s economic response and recovery package to support media heavily hit by the crisis, while respecting their independence.

Empowering citizens, raising citizens awareness and increasing societal resilience implies enabling citizens to participate in the democratic debate by preserving access to information and freedom of expression, promoting citizens’ media and information literacy, including critical thinking and digital skills. This can be done through media literacy projects and support to civil society organisations.

Next steps

The actions proposed today will feed into future EU work on disinformation, notably the European Democracy Action Plan and the Digital Services Act.

Background

The European Union has been actively tackling disinformation since 2015. Following a decision of the European Council in March 2015, the East StratCom Task Force in the European External Action Service (EEAS) was set up. In 2016, the Joint Framework on countering hybrid threats was adopted, followed by the Joint Communication on increasing resilience and bolstering capabilities to address hybrid threats in 2018.

The Action Plan against Disinformation of December 2018 outlined four pillars for the EU’s fight against disinformation: 1) improving the capabilities to detect, analyse and expose disinformation; 2) strengthening coordinated and joint responses, i.a. through the Rapid Alert System; 3) mobilising the private sector to tackle disinformation; 4) raising awareness and improving societal resilience.

In October 2018, the Code of Practice was signed by Facebook, Google, Twitter and Mozilla as well as trade associations representing online platforms, the advertising industry, and advertisers as a self-regulatory tool to tackle disinformation. Microsoft joined the Code in 2019. The signatories submitted self-assessments in October 2019. The Commission will publish a comprehensive assessment in the forthcoming weeks.

Finally, in a Joint Communication of June 2019, the Commission and the High Representative concluded that while the European elections of May 2019 were not free from disinformation, the actions taken by the EU have contributed to narrow down the space for third-country influence as well as coordinated campaigns to manipulate public opinion.

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EU Politics

EU clears way for the EU Digital COVID Certificate

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Today, the Presidents of the three EU institutions, the European Parliament, the Council of the EU and the European Commission attended the official signing ceremony for the Regulation on the EU Digital COVID Certificate, marking the end of the legislative process. On this occasion Presidents David Sassoli and Ursula von der Leyen and Prime Minister António Costa said:

“The EU Digital COVID Certificate is a symbol of what Europe stands for. Of a Europe that does not falter when put to the test. A Europe that unites and grows when faced with challenges. Our Union showed again that we work best when we work together. The EU Digital COVID Certificate Regulation was agreed between our institutions in the record time of 62 days. While we worked through the legislative process, we also built the technical backbone of the system, the EU gateway, which is live since 1 June.

We can be proud of this great achievement. The Europe that we all know and that we all want back is a Europe without barriers. The EU Certificate will again enable citizens to enjoy this most tangible and cherished of EU rights – the right to free movement. Signed into law today, it will enable us to travel more safely this summer. Today we reaffirm together that an open Europe prevails.”

EU Digital COVID Certificate

The aim of the EU Digital COVID Certificate is to facilitate safe and free movement inside the EU during the COVID-19 pandemic. All Europeans have the right to free movement, also without the certificate, but the certificate will facilitate travel, exempting holders from restrictions like quarantine.

The EU Digital COVID Certificate will be accessible for everyone and it will:

  • cover COVID-19 vaccination, test and recovery;
  • be free of charge and available in all EU languages;
  • be available in a digital and paper-based format;
  • be secure and include a digitally signed QR code;

Member States shall refrain from imposing additional travel restrictions on the holders of an EU Digital COVID Certificate, unless they are necessary and proportionate to safeguard public health.

In addition, the Commission committed to mobilising €100 million under the Emergency Support Instrument to support Member States in providing affordable tests.

The Regulation will apply for 12 months as of 1 July 2021.

Background

On 17 March 2021, the European Commission presented a proposal to create an EU COVID Certificate to facilitate the safe free movement of citizens within the EU during the pandemic. On 20 May, co-legislators reached a provisional agreement. On 1 June, the technical backbone of the systems, the EU gateway, went live. The gateway allows the verification of the security features contained in the QR codes.

Following the official signature today, the Regulation will enter into application on 1 July, with a phasing-in period of six weeks for the issuance of certificates for those Member States that need additional time.

13 Member States have already started to issue EU Digital COVID Certificates.

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EU Politics

EU proposes a strong multilateral trade response to the COVID-19 pandemic

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EU has submitted its proposal seeking the commitment of World Trade Organization (WTO) members for a multilateral trade action plan to expand the production of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments, and ensure universal and fair access. With this proposal to the WTO, divided in two communications, the EU underlines the WTO’s central role in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and urges fellow WTO members to agree on a set of commitments, including on intellectual property rights.

President von der Leyen said: “The EU has actively shown solidarity with the world since the beginning of the pandemic. The European Union authorized exports of around half of the total amount of vaccines produced in Europe. Our immediate, urgent goal is to ensure equitable access for low – and middle-income countries, to share vaccines wider and faster. And we continue to help ramping up production. The EU proposes concrete short and medium term solutions to ensure universal access at affordable prices. I am looking forward to discuss with the G7 leaders next week how to achieve this goal. Beyond the current crisis, it is important to ensure global preparedness for future pandemics: diversifying manufacturing so that it is not centralised only in a handful of countries and strengthening the resilience of the healthcare infrastructure in least developed countries”.

Executive Vice-President and Commissioner for Trade Valdis Dombrovskis said: “The pandemic is still with us and there can be no room for complacency. We need to urgently concentrate on proposals that accelerate the equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines worldwide. In this respect, a strong multilateral trade response could deliver a huge boost in the fight against COVID-19. In reality, the main problem at this moment relates to the lack of sufficient manufacturing capacity to rapidly produce the required quantities. The objective must be to ensure that any available and adequate manufacturing capacity anywhere in the world is used for the COVID-19 vaccines production.”

More on the EU’s proposal

The EU calls on governments to:

  1. Ensure that COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and their components can cross borders freely;
  2. encourage producers to expand their production, while ensuring that those countries most in need of vaccines receive them at an affordable price, and;
  3. facilitate the use of compulsory licensing within the WTO’s existing Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). The TRIPS Agreement already provides this flexibility, which is a legitimate tool during the pandemic that can be used swiftly where needed

The first element aims to limit the use of export restrictions and keep supply chains open. Vaccine-producing countries should be ready to export a fair share of their domestic production. Supply chains are highly interconnected and should not be disrupted. In addition, the EU considers that supplies to the COVAX Facility should never be restricted, and no measures should limit trade in inputs necessary for the production of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. 

The second element calls on governments to strongly encourage and support vaccine manufacturers and developers to expand production and ensure the affordable supply of vaccines to low- and middle-income countries. Such actions could include licensing agreements, the sharing of expertise, tiered pricing including non-profit sales to low-income countries, contract manufacturing and new investments in manufacturing facilities in developing countries. The EU expects all vaccine producers and developers to make concrete pledges that increase supplies to vulnerable developing countries. In this regard, the EU welcomes the commitment of companies such as BioNTech and Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Moderna, which have already committed to delivering 1.3 billion doses this year to low-income countries at no profit and to middle-income countries at lower cost.

The third element, on intellectual property, sets out that voluntary licences are the most effective instrument to facilitate the expansion of production and sharing of expertise. Where voluntary cooperation fails, compulsory licences, whereby a government grants a targeted licence allowing a willing producer to make a vaccine without the consent of a patent holder, are a legitimate tool in the context of a pandemic. The EU considers that all WTO members should be ready to:

  • agree that the COVID-19 pandemic is an exceptional circumstance of national emergency, and that the requirement to negotiate with the rights’ holder may be legitimately waived where needed;
  • support manufacturers that are ready to produce vaccines and/or treatments at affordable prices under a compulsory licence so that the level of remuneration paid by the manufacturer to the patent holder reflects such affordable prices;
  • agree that the compulsory licence could cover any exports destined to countries that lack manufacturing capacity, including via the COVAX facility.

The EU is also tabling a dedicated communication on intellectual property to the WTO body in charge of implementing the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Council). Here, the EU provides more detail and clarity on each of the three points on intellectual property and links them with the specific provisions in the TRIPS Agreement. As regards the broad waiver proposed by a number of WTO members, the European Commission, while ready to discuss any option that helps end the pandemic as soon as possible, is not convinced that this would provide the best immediate response to reach the objective of the widest and timely distribution of COVID-19 vaccines that the world urgently needs. Today’s proposals aim at achieving that objective in a swift and effective manner.

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EU Politics

EU Digital COVID Certificate: Parliament and Council reach agreement

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Photo: Lukas Souza/Unsplash

The Commission welcomes today’s provisional political agreement between the European Parliament and the Council on the Regulation governing the EU Digital COVID Certificate. This means that the certificate (previously called the Digital Green Certificate) is well on track to be ready end of June, as planned. Today’s agreement has been reached in record time just two months after the Commission’s proposal. The negotiations on the certificate for the Commission have been led by Commissioner Didier Reynders in close cooperation with Vice-Presidents Vera Jourová and Margaritis Schinas and Commissioners Thierry Breton, Stella Kyriakides, and Ylva Johansson.

Welcoming this swift progress, President Ursula von der Leyen said:

“We are delivering on our commitment to have the EU Digital COVID Certificate up and running before the summer. European citizens are looking forward to travelling again, and today’s agreement means they will be able to do so safely very soon.

The EU Digital COVID Certificate is free of charge, secure and accessible to all. It will cover vaccination, test and recovery offering different options to the citizens. It fully respects citizens’ fundamental rights, including protection of personal data.

All EU citizens have a fundamental right to free movement in the EU. The EU Digital COVID Certificate, available in paper or digital format, will make it easier for Europeans to travel – whether to see their families and loved ones or to get some well-deserved rest.

We would like to thank the European Parliament and the Portuguese Presidency for their dedication, perseverance and immense work at record speed to find an agreement on the proposal we presented.

Work still remains. At EU level, the system will be ready in the next few days. It is now crucial that all Member States press ahead with the roll-out of their national systems to ensure that the system can be up and running as soon as possible. This is what EU citizens rightly expect.

Today’s agreement has demonstrated that with the commitment and cooperation of all, the EU Digital COVID Certificate will be available on time.”

The EU Digital COVID Certificate – key features

Following the agreement reached by the European Parliament and the Council, the EU Digital COVID Certificate:

  • will cover vaccination, test and recovery;
  • will be available in a digital and paper-based format, depending on the choice of the recipients, and contain a digitally signed QR code;
  • will be free of charge, be obtained easily and also available to persons vaccinated before the EU Digital COVID Certificate Regulation has entered into force;
  • may also be used by Member States for national purposes, if this is provided for in national law.
  • Member States shall refrain from imposing additional travel restrictions on the holders of an EU Digital COVID Certificate, unless they are necessary and proportionate to safeguard public health.
  • The Commission will also mobilise €100 million to support Member States in providing affordable tests.

Next Steps

The political agreement will now have to be formally adopted by the European Parliament and the Council. The Regulation will enter into force on 1 July, with a phasing-in period of six weeks for the issuance of certificates for those Member States that need additional time.

In parallel, the Commission will continue to support the Member States in finalising their national solutions for the issuance and verification of EU Digital COVID Certificate, and to provide technical and financial support to Member States to on-board the gateway.

Background

On 17 March 2021, the European Commission presented a proposal to create an EU COVID certificate to facilitate the safe free movement of citizens within the EU during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the Commission’s request, the Parliament voted in favour of the activation of the urgent procedure for the two proposals on 25 March. The Council adopted its negotiating position on 14 April, and the Parliament did so on 29 April. On 20 May co-legislators reached provisional agreement on this file.

In parallel to the legislative process, important progress was already made on the technical side. The EU Gateway, which allows to verify certificates across borders, is ready and will go live as of June. Successful pilot tests took place with 17 Member States and Iceland during the last two weeks, further five Member States will test next week.

The Commission also provide open source reference software to support Member States to develop their national solution to issue certificates, to scan and check the QR codes, and a reference wallet for storage.

Previously, on 21 April, technical specification guidelines were adopted by Member States representatives in the eHealth Network, a voluntary network connecting national authorities responsible for eHealth. They are building on the close work of the Commission with the Member States, having resulted in first guidelines adopted in January and updated on 12 March, and a trust framework outline agreed on 12 March 2021. In addition, a common design template was developed in the eHealth network.

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