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European court opinion strengthens role of national data supervisors in Facebook case

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Today (13 January) Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) Advocate General Bobek published his opinion on whether a national data protection authority can start proceedings against a company, in this case Facebook, for failing to protect users’ data, even if it is not the lead supervisory authority (LSA).

The Belgian Data Protection Authority, (formerly Privacy Commission), commenced proceedings against Facebook in 2015 for the unlawful collection of browsing information without valid consent. The Brussels Court found that the case was within its jurisdiction and ordered Facebook to cease certain activities. This was challenged by Facebook, who argued that the new ‘one-stop-shop’ mechanism of the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) means that cross-border processing should be dealt with by the lead supervisory authority – in this instance the Irish Data Protection Commission, as the main Facebook HQ in the European Union is in Ireland (Facebook Ireland Ltd).

The EU’s Advocate General Michal Bobek agreed that the lead supervisor does have a general competence over cross-border data processing - and by implication other data protection authorities have more limited power to commence judicial proceedings, however he also found that there were situations where national data protection authorities could intervene.

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One of the Advocate General’s (AG) main concerns appeared to be the danger of “under-enforcement” of the GDPR. The AG argues that the LSA should be seen more as a primus inter pares, but that national supervisors do not renounce their ability to act in a suspected infringement in every instance. The current governance relies on cooperation to ensure consistency in application.

It isn’t difficult to fathom his concerns. Anyone who has followed the litigation of Max Schrems over the last years in Ireland against Facebook’s EU-US data transfers would not be impressed by the less than exemplary performance of the supervisor and the Irish court system. It was serendipitous that on the same day that this opinion was published, the Irish Data Protection Commission finally settled its 7.5 year battle with Schrems.

The AG sees the potential danger of companies choosing their main place of establishment on the basis of the national regulator, with countries with less active or under-resourced regulators being preferred, as a type of regulatory arbitrage. He adds that though consistency was to be welcomed there was a danger that “collective responsibility could lead to collective irresponsibility and, ultimately, inertia”.

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Climate change made deadly floods in Western Europe at least 20% more likely - study

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A house hit by a landslide is seen after heavy rain caused flooding in towns surrounding Lake Como in northern Italy, in Laglio, Italy. REUTERS/Flavio Lo Scalzo

Climate change has made extreme rainfall events of the kind that sent lethal torrents of water hurtling through parts of Germany and Belgium last month at least 20% more likely to happen in the region, scientists said Tuesday, writes Isla Binnie, Reuters.

The downpour was likely made heavier by climate change as well. A day of rainfall can now be up to 19% more intense in the region than it would have been had global atmospheric temperatures not risen by 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.16 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial temperatures, according to research published by the World Weather Attribution (WWA) scientific consortium.

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"We will definitely get more of this in a warming climate," said the group's co-leader Friederike Otto, a climate scientist at the University of Oxford.

"Extreme weather is deadly," said Otto, recalling that she urgently contacted family members who live in the affected areas to make sure they were safe when the floods hit. "For me it was very close to home."

With extreme weather events dominating news headlines in recent years, scientists have been under increasing pressure to determine exactly how much climate change is to blame.

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During the last year alone, scientists found that U.S. drought, a deadly Canadian heat wave and wildfires across the Siberian Arctic have been worsened by a warming atmosphere.

The July 12-15 rainfall over Europe triggered flooding that swept away houses and power lines, and left more than 200 people dead, mostly in Germany. Dozens died in Belgium and thousands were also forced to flee their homes in the Netherlands. Read more.

"The fact that people are losing their lives in one of the richest countries in the world -- that is truly shocking," said climate scientist Ralf Toumi at the Grantham Institute, Imperial College London, who was not involved in the study. "Nowhere is safe."

Although the deluge was unprecedented, the 39 WWA scientists found that local rainfall patterns are highly variable.

So they conducted their analysis over a wider area spanning parts of France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Switzerland. They used local weather records and computer simulations to compare the July flooding event with what might have been expected in a world unaffected by climate change.

Because warmer air holds more moisture, summer downpours in this region are now 3-19% heavier than they would be without global warming, the scientists found.

And the event itself was anywhere from 1.2 to 9 times -- or 20% to 800% -- more likely to have occurred.

That broad range of uncertainty was partly explained by a lack of historical records, WWA explained, and worsened by the floods destroying equipment that monitored river conditions. Read more.

Still, the "study confirms that global heating has played a big part in the flooding disaster," said Stefan Rahmstorf, a scientist and oceanographer at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, who was not involved in the study.

"This is in line with the finding of the recent IPCC report, which found that extreme rainfall events have increased worldwide," he added, referring to a U.N. climate panel's findings. Read more.

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Seven residents of Belgian nursing home die after outbreak of B.1.621 lineage of COVID-19

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Seven residents of a nursing home in Belgium have died after being infected with a lineage of the coronavirus first detected in Colombia despite being fully vaccinated, the virology team that conducted tests said on Friday (6 August), writes Sabine Siebold, Reuters.

The virology team said the residents had been infected with the B.1.621 lineage of COVID-19 that originated in Colombia and has been detected in recent weeks in the United States but cases in Europe have been rare.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has listed the B1.621 lineage as part of the Kappa variant of the coronavirus, but not as a variant itself.

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The seven people who died at the nursing home in the Belgian town of Zaventem, near Brussels, were all in their 80s or 90s, and some of them were already in a poor physical condition, said Marc Van Ranst, a virologist at the University of Leuven which conducted tests on the virus found at the nursing home.

"It is worrisome," Van Ranst said, commenting on the fact that the residents died despite being fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

So far, scientists do not know if the B.1.621 lineage is more transmissible than other lineages or variants of the coronavirus, he said.

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In Belgium, B.1.621 currently accounts for less than 1% of known cases of COVID-19, he said, compared to 2% of cases in the United States and more than that in Florida.

At the nursing home in Zaventem, 21 residents were infected with the variant along with several members of staff, Van Ranst told Reuters. The infected staff experienced only mild symptoms.

Van Ranst said the dominant coronavirus variant in Belgium with around 95% of infections is the Delta, first discovered in India, followed by the Alpha that was previously dominant in Britain.

Additional tests will be run on Friday to rule out any possibility that the nursing home residents died from a different variant of the virus or a different respiratory disease, Van Ranst said.

"It is unlikely but not impossible," he said.

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Commission approves €14.3 million public support to promote shift of freight traffic from road to inland waterways in Belgium

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The European Commission has approved, under EU state aid rules, a €14.3 million aid scheme to encourage the shift of freight traffic from road to inland waterways in the Flemish region in Belgium. The scheme, which will run from January 2022 until the end of 2025, provides aid to terminal operators for terminal hub shuttles and corridor shuttles to encourage beneficiaries to engage in the bundling of freight volumes transported to and from Flemish seaports in Belgium. The aid takes the form of a subsidy, designed to cover the costs for the additional corridor shuttle running and the beneficiaries' costs for efficiently combining freight volumes transported to and from Flemish seaports.

The additional roundtrip of a corridor shuttle and bundling of freight volumes will make inland waterways more time-efficient, less costly and therefore more attractive and competitive for shippers compared to transport by road. The Commission found that the measure is necessary to provide the right incentives to shippers to opt for less polluting modes of transport while at the same time reducing road congestion. The Commission found that, in addition to supporting a greener form of mobility such as inland waterway transport, the measure is proportionate and necessary to achieve the objective pursued, namely to facilitate the modal shift from road to inland waterways, whilst not leading to undue competition distortions.

On this basis, the Commission concluded that the measure is compatible with EU state aid rules, in particular Article 93 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. More information will be available on the Commission's competition's website in the public case register under the case number SA.60177 once any confidentiality issues have been resolved.

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