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Digital transformation should be socially and ethically responsible says #EESC

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Appropriate skills, social protection and diversity in the workplace will all be crucial for the future, as will social dialogue about the introduction of new technologies.

The digital transition in the EU should be underpinned by respect for European values and supported by more robust social policies, to ensure that no one is left behind. European society as a whole – workers, companies and the general public alike – should instead benefit from the huge potential offered by new technologies, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) said at its July plenary.

"We disagree with the assumption that 'digitalisation will result in winners and losers'", rapporteur for the opinion on EU concepts for transition management in a digitalized world of work, Franca Salis-Madinier, told the plenary. "It should be possible for everybody to benefit. It can be ensured that no one is pushed aside."

In the opinion, the Committee listed several priorities for the EU which should make sure that the benefits of digitalisation can be reaped.

One of the top priorities is upskilling European workers, i.e. ensuring that they have the appropriate skills for the future, as the vast majority of jobs will be affected by digitalisation. To keep pace with development, the EESC said: "All sectors will need workers not only with high levels of cognitive and creative skills but also with managerial and communication skills and the ability to learn."

There is an urgent need for a policy focusing on training and life-long learning, with the aim of reducing skills shortages and mismatches. Currently, some 22% of workers in the EU may not have the right digital skills to keep up with developments in their jobs.

Particular attention should be paid to workers in low-skilled occupations at high risk of automation, transformation, replacement or even disappearance.

Another priority is to bolster social security systems, which should be of high quality and financially viable so as to guarantee protection for all workers, including those in the flexible and atypical forms of employment that are now on the rise. This is in line with the European Pillar of Social Rights. The EESC also stressed the importance of holding social dialogue on adapting social protection systems to the new forms of work.

However, as the EESC highlighted in its opinion, investment in social policies currently accounts for only 0.3% of total public expenditure in the EU, which should be beefed up.

Diversity in the workplace was also singled out as a top EU objective. For example, most jobs in the IT sector and other well-paid and highly recognised fields are currently predominantly occupied by men. This needs to change if we want to avoid inequalities in the future world of work.

In its opinion, the EESC also reiterated its support for a "human-in command" approach to digitalisation, and said it encouraged the development of socially responsible artificial intelligence that served the common good. It also said that the lack of clarity surrounding how algorithms worked and how they made the choices that were beyond human control posed fundamental questions about the society we wanted to live in.

"We stress the importance of the human-in-command principle – whatever happens, humans should be in charge", said the co-rapporteur for the opinion, Ulrich Samm. "Modernization is in our hands: we decide what the world should look like, what our environment should look like, what technologies we want to use."

According to this principle, machines clearly have the role of serving humans, with more complex, ethical and human-related tasks left under human control. One positive example is the increased use of "collaborative robots" to help workers or people with disabilities.

"This should allay our fears; we should acknowledge that we are in the driver's seat", said Mr Samm.

The EESC opinion was requested by the Austrian Presidency of the EU and will provide key input for an EU White Paper on the future of work. The EESC has already produced several opinions on this topic, at the request of the Estonian and Bulgarian presidencies.

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#EU Cybersecurity: Commission launches public consultation on the NIS directive

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The Commission launched a public consultation on the revision of the Directive on security of network and information systems (the NIS Directive). Since the current Directive entered into force in 2016, the cyber-threat landscape has been evolving quickly. The Commission now plans to kick-start the procedure for the revision of the NIS Directive, starting with a public consultation that aims to collect views on its implementation and on the impact of potential future changes.

A Europe Fit for the Digital Age Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager said: “As our daily lives and economies become increasingly dependent on digital solutions, we need a culture of state of the art security across vital sectors that rely on information and communication technologies.”

Promoting our European Way of Life Vice-President Margaritis Schinas said: “The review of the Network and Information Systems Directive is an integral part of our forthcoming EU Security Union Strategy that will provide an EU co-ordinated and horizontal approach to security challenges”.

Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton, said: “The coronavirus crisis has highlighted how important it is to ensure the resilience of our network infrastructure, in particular in sensitive sectors such as health. This consultation is an opportunity for stakeholders to inform the Commission on the state of the cybersecurity preparedness of companies and organisations and to propose ways to further improve it.”

Since its adoption, the NIS Directive has ensured that member states are better prepared for cyber incidents and have increased their cooperation through the NIS Co-operation Group. It obliges companies that provide essential services in vital sectors, namely in energy, transport, banking, financial market infrastructures, health, water supply and distribution and digital infrastructure, as well key digital service providers, such as search engines, cloud computing services or online marketplaces, to protect their information technology systems and report major cybersecurity incidents to the national authorities.

The consultation, which will be open until 2 October 2020, seeks opinions and experiences from all interested stakeholders and citizens. More information about the EU's actions to strengthen cybersecurity capacities is available here and in these questions & answers, and more information about the work of NIS Co-operation Group is here.

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EU grants €38 million for protection of #CriticalInfrastructure against #CyberThreats

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The Commission has announced that it is committing more than €38 million, through Horizon 2020, the EU's research and innovation programme, to support several innovative projects in the field of protection of critical infrastructure against cyber and physical threats and making cities smarter and safer.

Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Commissioner Mariya Gabriel said: “Over the past years we have offered our support to research and innovation actions in the area of cybersecurity that contribute to better protecting key infrastructure and the people living in European smart cities. I am pleased that today we are able to offer yet another significant amount of funding through Horizon 2020 towards security, privacy and threat mitigating solutions.”

Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton added: “Securing network and information systems and enhancing cyber resilience are key for shaping Europe's digital future. As we are faced with a diverse array of cybersecurity threats, the EU is taking concrete measures to protect critical infrastructures, cities and citizens. More investments at EU and national level in innovative cybersecurity technologies and solutions are of paramount importance to strengthen EU's resilience to cyberattacks.”

Three projects (SAFETY4RAILS7SHIELDand ENSURESEC) will work to improve prevention, detection, response and mitigation of cyber and physical threatsfor metro and railway networks, ground space infrastructure and satellites, as well as e-commerce and delivery services. Two additional projects (IMPETUS and S4ALLCITIES) aim at enhancing the resilience of cities' infrastructures and services and protecting citizens in case of security incidents in public spaces. The projects are expected to start between June and October 2020 and will run for two years. The support is part of the EU's commitment to build a strong cybersecurity culture and enhanced capabilities to resist and respond effectively to potential cyber threats and attacks.

More information on the EU's actions to strengthen cybersecurity capacities is available in these Q&A, while EU-funded cybersecurity projects can be found here, and new funding opportunities under Horizon 2020 here.

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#Huawei - Not everyone wants a level playing field

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I remember one particular week in December 1990 very well.   The great and the good of world trade were gathered in a Brussels conference hall, at an area known as the Heysel, to conclude - they hoped - the ‘Uruguay Round’ of trade talks that would hopefully remove barriers to commerce around the world, writes Jim Gibbons.

Every day I made my way in the dark, together with my camera crew, to the doors of the building where the talks were being held.  There, along with many others, I waited in the freezing cold, a stone’s throw from Belgium’s famous Atomium landmark, to see if we could entice someone notable to stop and give any of us a comment on the progress (or lack of it).  We all wanted a soundbite.   The leaders were stuck on the thorny issue of agricultural trade reform, an obstacle that would end up derailing the negotiations for three long years; it would be April 1994 before a deal was finally struck, creating the World Trade Organisation (WTO).   So there we were, the Brussels correspondents of EU media, together with journalists from around the world, hoping to witness an historic moment in the history of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).   We were to be disappointed, as were the various negotiators, especially those from developing countries, who felt that their needs for access to global markets were being ignored in favour of keeping the rich countries happy.   “We have a saying in my country,” one African politician told me, “When the elephants fight it is the grass that gets trampled, and we are the grass.”   Now it’s happening again, except that thirty years on, some of the grass has grown quite tall and rather tough and defies the pachyderms.   They go on trampling, though.

Take the issue of 5G, the next generation of electronic communication and connectivity.   US President Donald Trump has made it a policy, backed up with threats, to exclude the Chinese tech giant Huawei (and other Chinese-owned companies) from having any part in creating the networks.   The US has offered no evidence that Huawei poses a threat, which means that excluding the company from taking part is simply because it’s Chinese and its government is Communist, at least in theory.   And Washington doesn’t trust China.   However, to exclude Huawei on the basis of its country of origin would be in breach of the agreement that wasn’t reached in Brussels but was just over three years later, when most of the 123 parties involved added their signatures on 15 April, 1994, in Marrakesh, Morocco.   And it’s not just in the United States that the Trump administration is trying to impose a ban on Huawei; it has been strong-arming other allies, as well.   It seems determined to shut out Huawei from markets around the world.

The United States may be the prime mover in this endeavour but it is not alone.   Even the European Union seems to want to restrict Huawei’s market access.   Partly because of American concern over possible vulnerabilities in Chinese-built 5G equipment, the European Commission published a “5G Toolbox” of recommendations.   As the Commission’s website puts it: “The toolbox addresses all risks identified in the EU coordinated assessment, including risks related to non-technical factors, such as the risk of interference from non-EU state or state-backed actors through the 5G supply chain.”   In fact, the Commission is aware of the fears and seems loathe to upset the Americans, even if it means breaching WTO rules.   “A genuine Security Union is one which protects Europe's citizens, companies and critical infrastructure,” said Margaritis Schinas, Vice-President for Promoting the European Way of Life, “5G will be a ground-breaking technology but it cannot come at the expense of the security of our internal market.”    So, a little bit of a wobble there.   Perhaps what needs to be balanced up here is the fear that China may listen in to our secrets without us knowing, on the one hand, and the fear that Europe will be left behind in the rush towards friction-free trade, facilitated through 5G, on the other.   “In the toolbox conclusions,” says the Commission, “Member States agreed to strengthen security requirements, to assess the risk profiles of suppliers, to apply relevant restrictions for suppliers considered to be high risk including necessary exclusions for key assets considered as critical and sensitive (such as the core network functions), and to have strategies in place to ensure the diversification of vendors.”   According to my understanding of the WTO rules, the legality of that decision would seem, at best, uncertain.   In fact, the agreement on the WTO worried some, especially on the political left.   The late Alex Falconer, a Glasgow Labour MEP so far to the left that he had a poster of Lenin on his wall, stopped me by the lift in the European Parliament, red in the face and poking me in the chest with an angry finger, to warn that it meant, as he put it, that “all the big political decisions in the future will be taken in the board rooms of corporations, behind closed doors.   It’s the end of democracy,” he said.  In a way, this current dispute suggests that politics is still trying to play a part, however clumsily.

At least the EU hasn’t opted for the strident style of Robert O’Brien, US Security advisor, in talking about Chinese tech companies. “They are just going to steal wholesale state secrets,” he told journalists, upon learning that the UK government has opted to go ahead with letting Huawei supply its 5G hardware, albeit only in ‘peripheral’ areas, “whether they are the UK’s nuclear secrets or secrets from MI6 or MI5.”   It all seems somewhat overblown, more akin to the plot of a ‘Mission Impossible’ movie than the real world, in which countries exchange goods for money.   But O’Brien remains worried. “It is somewhat shocking to us,” he says, “that folks in the UK would look at Huawei as some sort of a commercial decision.  5G is a national security decision.”   The lawyers Michel Petite and Thomas Voland of the legal firm Clifford Chance, pointed out in an article for Frankurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) that the US has not managed to produce any evidence of wrongdoing by Huawei, ZTE or any other Chinese tech firm.  “The network operators are critical of strict restrictions,” they wrote in the article. “The company Telefónica recently emphasized that there are no known risks specific to the hardware of certain manufacturers.”   The lawyers have concerns about the legality of moves to exclude Chinese companies, too: “As long as no concrete misconduct can be proven to a company, it is doubtful whether restrictions or even a ban on its products are in accordance with international law.”

In fact, US policy may do long-term damage to its own interests.   By preventing US companies from supplying components to Huawei, Washington has obliged the company to research ways of filling the gap with products it has designed and manufactured itself, creating a spur to Chinese research and development.   Huawei has had a manufacturing and research presence in Europe for more than twenty years and it claims that just 30% of the components in its products come from China. Given that its competitors similarly have bases in other countries, including the United States, the idea of a ban based on ‘place of origin’ would seem not only illegal but impractical, too.   It would be difficult to ban 30% of a product.

Abraham Liu, Huawei’s Chief Representative to the EU Institutions

Abraham Liu, Huawei’s chief representative to the EU institutions

In any case, Huawei has said many times that it sees itself having a European future.   “Huawei is more committed to Europe than ever before,” said Abraham Liu, Huawei’s Chief Representative to the EU Institutions.   He was speaking at a big event in Brussels to mark Chinese New Year.  “We are looking forward to our next 20 years here. That’s why we have decided we want to set up manufacturing bases in Europe – so that we can truly have 5G for Europe made in Europe.”   The European Union, meanwhile, has its ‘toolbox’ and it also has the NIS Cooperation Group, which was created by the 2016 Directive on Security of Network and Information systems (the NIS Directive) to ensure strategic cooperation and the exchange of information among EU Member States in cybersecurity.   The NIS Cooperation Group comprises representatives of the EU Member States, the European Commission and the EU Agency for cybersecurity (ENISA).   In an article in Europe Diplomatic Magazine, T. Kingsley Brooks wrote “Huawei has a long track record of European involvement.   Huawei opened its first research facility in Europe in 2000, with a handful of employees in Stockholm. Now it employs over 13,300 staff and runs two regional centres and 23 research establishments in 12 EU countries   It also has R&D&I (research, development and innovation) partnerships with 150 European universities.”

Why does it matter so much?   Because 5G is the future - at least, for now.   It will undoubtedly be overtaken at some future time (is anyone working on 6G yet?) but no-one can afford to be left behind, which is why Britain has decided, somewhat controversially, to accept Huawei into creating its 5G network.   There is an old adage: “Whoever owns the platform, owns the customer.” This race to be the first to establish technological platforms and lock-in their customers is increasingly becoming politicized.  According to 5G Security’s website, “The potential economic gains from 5G development and deployment, the civilization’s likely future dependence on 5G, and 5G’s potential use for military applications make it a prime candidate for political influence.”   But it’s not going to happen overnight; in some places, even 4G has not been fully rolled out.   According to the GSM Association (GSMA) trade group, about 1.2 billion people – 460 million in China alone – will have access to 5G networks by 2025. The pace of network implementation will only increase after that.   According to its own website, “The GSMA represents the interests of mobile operators worldwide, uniting more than 750 operators with almost 400 companies in the broader mobile ecosystem, including handset and device makers, software companies, equipment providers and internet companies, as well as organisations in adjacent industry sectors.”

At the moment, of course, the world is somewhat distracted by the corona virus pandemic.   Its tragic effect has been felt right across the world and it is likely to impinge on how we live our lives for several months to come.   But even in the face of this tragedy, 5G has a rôle to play.   For instance, the specially-constructed Huoshenshan emergency field hospital at Wuhan was the first in the world with a remote consultation platform, using a gigabit network, backed up with 5G.  Huawei created a system that allowed doctors in Wuhan to consult quickly with experts in Beijing.   Artificial intelligence (AI) assisted diagnosis allowed a patient’s illness to be diagnosed in ten seconds, with confirmation by a doctor in two minutes and a printed report in thirty seconds: six times faster than conducting the process manually.   The system has been deployed in twenty hospitals in China.   Similarly, using AI at a call centre allowed 372 people at high risk to be detected within ninety-nine minutes.   The same task performed manually would have taken 4,800 minutes, according to Huawei.   A similar system has been put to use sifting through more than 8,500 existing drugs to check if they might help in fighting COVID-19.

The rôle technology, including 5G, may have in helping during the covid-19 outbreak was raised during an on-air debate organised by Debating Europe.   One of those taking part, Pearse O’Donohue, Director of Future Networks at the European Commission, said “technology, specifically digital technology, is a key component of our collective efforts to tackle the pandemic.” He admitted that we do not yet have full access to 5G, although it will undoubtedly play a bigger part in future.   Meanwhile, existing technology has an important short-term rôle in tracing, diagnosing and supporting treatment, among other things.  Abraham Liu, Huawei’s Chief Representative to the EU institutions, agrees, believing that technology will play an increasingly vital rôle.   “Overall,” he said, “I think we should take technology as a force for good.”   He also feels that 5G will prove invaluable for restoring the economy to health when the crisis is over.   “Many people may have lost their jobs,” he said, “and maybe many people are going to have to start again in business and in work.   We need people to be able to have the best connectivity available.   5G, if you talk about high speed broadband, has the best potential.”   As far as I can see, the only concern over 5G concerns weather forecasting.     It transmits at 24 gigahertz, which can overlap with the 23.8 GHz signal emitted naturally by atmospheric water vapour.  It is this vapour that is monitored by the weather instruments of satellites in Earth orbit, possibly making it harder to predict storm systems, and possibly making forecasts less accurate.   But that could be a storm in a teacup.

There are fears that this crisis will highlight the fact that some parts of Europe are not well connected, leaving what’s called a ‘digital divide’ between those with access to the Internet and those without.   “This is an issue that we have to address, that we have to wake up to,” said O’Donohue, “It’s a wake-up call at a national but particularly at European level.”   Greek Socialist MEP Eva Kaili agrees: “I think it is pushing a lot of governments to understand that we should have everybody connected or have the option to be connected.”   As we struggle to get over the effects of lock-down, that is undoubtedly important, if the policymakers can stop arguing and get on with it.  Huawei is providing fill-in masts to link more people, says Liu.   “Based on solar power, microwaves, with a simple pole,” he explained, “and at very low cost.   We are making some efforts on this, and other industrial operators are working on it, too, and that will help.”   Technology has thrown up another problem, however: the wish of some governments to track the movements of infected people and those at high risk run into EU data privacy laws.

China has always surprised visitors from the West, just as it is now surprising westerners in their home countries with its incredible technology.   During the Yuan dynasty towards the end of the 13th century, the Venetian Marco Polo travelled there.   He was so overwhelmed that he tended to exaggerate, stating that Suzhou had 6,000 stone bridges (he called it the ‘Venice of the East’) and that the city of Hangzhou, which would soon become the capital under the Southern Song dynasty, possessed 1.6-million houses.   It seems unlikely he had counted them and it earned him the nickname back home of ‘il Milione’ - Mr. Millions - which was also the name readers jokingly gave to his book, The Travels of Marco Polo, when it was published in 1300.   Not everyone believed a word of it.  In fact, though, Marco Polo may have overstated things a little but it’s clear he thought China a very special place.  It undoubtedly is.   Its history is very long and complicated, even if the Great Wall is not - as some have claimed - visible from space and 2,000 years old.   For much of its existence it has not even been a single country under a single dynasty; boundaries moved.   But it has been incredibly inventive; quite apart from gunpowder (not initially used as a weapon) its soldiers were using crossbows almost a thousand years before they turned up in Europe.   The ancient Chinese people, before 1,000 BC, had many gods but didn’t credit them with creation, according to John Keay, in his excellent book, ‘China - a History’.   “Instead of creation myths,” he explains, “China’s history begins with inception myths and in place of a creator it has a ‘happening situation’.   Suggestive of a scientific reaction, part black hole, part Big Bang, this was known as the Great Beginning.”  Or so it is described in the third-century BC ‘Huainanzi’, Keay says.

China is an industrious and inventive nation, whatever Washington’s view of its political complexion and however much that view influences (or seeks to influence) other western powers, including the EU.   Abraham Liu has described America’s attitude as “politically motivated suspicion”.   So let’s get a few things clear: 5G is coming, even if it hasn’t reached you yet.  It will be essential for the working of the so-called ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT), linking inanimate objects so that they can be controlled from afar, almost certainly by AI, which will rely on 5G in other ways.   I’m still nervous about something that could, theoretically and if hacked by a hostile user, turn off my lights, turn up the hi-fi and unlock the cat flap when it’s supposed to record a television programme.  Any country that wants to keep up with the global shift in technology will be obliged to use it.   As for restricting Huawei to the periphery, the idea has been dismissed by Janka Oertel, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and Director of its Asia Programme: “Pretending that there would be a clear-cut distinction – between a core network that can be secured and the radio access network – is an illusion.”    One of these days, we’ll all get used to the idea of 5G and we’ll take for granted its manifold capabilities.   That’s about the time 6G will come along.

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