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Trade and Tech Council priorities — Europe’s man at the ITU — Digital policymaking in the fall – POLITICO

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POLITICO Digital Bridge

By MARK SCOTT

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WELCOME BACK. Digital Bridge is back at it after a week off. I’m Mark Scott, POLITICO’s chief technology correspondent. I’ve got a lot of out-of-office return emails over the last couple of weeks. But this one is worth keeping, even when you’re back at your desk. Pace yourselves, people.

We’re going high politics this week:

— Time is ticking down to the next EU-U.S. Trade and Tech Council meeting. Here’s an update.

— Meet Tomas Lamanauskas, Europe’s choice to be deputy secretary general at the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union.

— What digital legislation is worth keeping tabs on in the fall?

WHAT TO EXPECT FROM THE NEXT TTC MEETING

IT’S WASHINGTON’S TURN to host the upcoming meeting of the Trade and Tech Council. There’s a lot on the agenda — albeit expect American officials to get somewhat sidetracked with the upcoming United States midterm elections. First, the basics. Policymakers including Antony Blinken, the U.S. Secretary of State, and Margrethe Vestager, the European Union’s digital chief, will gather either in December or January. The location will likely be Austin (home to a burgeoning tech scene) or Miami (which is Brussels’ preferred option).

First things first: I volunteer to go to sun-soaked Miami in the winter. But given Austin’s digital prowess, expect the Texas capital to be a savvy choice if the White House wants to remind EU officials where the real (corporate) tech power lies. Six officials involved in the upcoming meeting said so-called “deliverables” were expected to be finished by late October. European policymakers visited Washington last month with the aim of laying out goals for both the U.S.-based get-together and the subsequent meeting in mid-2023 somewhere in Europe.

“We have to start showing results,” said one of those officials, who — like the others — spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal transatlantic deliberations. “The first two meetings have shown what we can accomplish. Just look at how we came together on Russian sanctions over Ukraine.” Another highlighted how some of the working groups, or regular meetings of mid-tier officials, were working out better than others. He cited those on investment screening and data governance as successes, while working groups focused on climate change and small businesses had proved less fruitful.

So what to expect from Austin/Miami? There’s a split between trade officials, many of whom have known each other from the aborted EU-U.S. Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and their digital counterparts, who are eager to create stronger ties between Washington and Brussels on digital regulation. “The trade guys know each other well and are bringing back a lot of the TTIP ideas into the TTC,” said another official, who added there was no appetite for restarting official free trade agreement talks.

There’s going to be a lot of talk about standards when U.S. and EU officials gather later this year. Efforts to create a Western consensus on everything from how electric vehicles can charge to what “responsible artificial intelligence” looks like are part of a broader geopolitical targeting of China. Officials also told me to expect a greater pushback against Moscow, given its ongoing war against Kyiv. But any sanctions and/or beefed-up export controls may also include language calling out Beijing, too — something that won’t go down well in some European capitals.

As part of that effort, Washington and Brussels will likely announce at least two pilot projects associated with a transatlantic taskforce set up to leverage Western development financing to build telecom infrastructure in emerging economies. The goal, announced in May during the previous TTC meeting, is to give third-party countries an ability to pay for more costly equipment than they can get from Chinese players like Huawei. This ambition is still in flux. But two of the officials told me the aim was to show such EU-U.S. collaboration can lead to definitive “success stories.”

On digital, it gets a little more fuzzy. After Europe passed its new online content rules, known as the Digital Services Act, some in the White House have been eager to piggyback on those proposals to force the social media platforms to do more on that side of the Atlantic. While nothing is set in stone yet, one idea circulating is to create a (voluntary) mandate — based on the EU’s digital rules that come into force by 2024 — that would nudge Meta, Twitter, etc to provide wide-ranging data access to outsiders and conduct risk assessments on potentially harmful behavior in the U.S., as well as in Europe.

EUROPE’S MAN AT THE ITU

TOMAS LAMANAUSKAS IS RACKING UP THE AIR MILES. Since July, the former Lithuania telecom regulatory official has popped up in Malaysia, Thailand, India, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria and the U.S. There’s a good reason: he’s been glad-handing government officials for support in his candidacy for the ITU’s Deputy Secretary General, which will be elected by 193 countries on September 29 — in a secret ballot — during a three-week conference in Bucharest.

“There’s no substitute for meeting people in person,” he told me during a short return to his home country. “Every country has a vote. You have to shake every hand, and say hello to every person.” The ITU’s upcoming ballot is inherently political. Doreen Bodgan-Martin, a long-time American official at the ITU, is running against Rashid Ismailov, a Russian telecom executive, to be the agency’s new secretary general. It pits the West’s view that governments shouldn’t be the only ones to set digital standards versus that supported by Beijing and Moscow, which would prefer more control of the wonkery that powers the internet.

Lamanauskas tried to play that down. “The ITU has survived two world wars and the Cold War. It has always been the place to talk,” he said. “That’s very important to me. We need to come together and talk.” Still, it’s hard not to view the Lithuanian as anything but the European (and American) candidate. In a first, the 27-country bloc all have backed his candidacy. His platform includes language like “neutral platform” — though he denies that’s a nod to the West’s hands-off approach to digital standards.

“It would be a loss for the ITU if the election turned into a vote between blocks,” he said. “The ITU needs to bring the whole world together.” As the potential number two at the UN agency (he’s running against Chaesub Lee, a South Korean senior ITU official, and Gisa Fuatai Purcell, a Samoan telecom regulator), he wants to prioritize the telecom industry’s role in combating climate change; greater ties between the agency’s different divisions; and more engagement with the investment community, particularly to bring infrastructure to the global south.

Yet it’s hard not to get away from the contrasting approaches the ITU could take under either an American or Russian candidate. So far, China — the current Secretary General, Houlin Zhao, who has publicly backed more government intervention in standard setting — has repeatedly tried, unsuccessfully, to push for more state control of the digital world. Beijing is playing its cards close to its chest ahead of next month’s ITU election. But three Western diplomats told me China was doing all that it could to stop Bodgan-Martin. “They don’t want an American at the top of the ITU,” one said.

When I asked Lamanauskas what role the UN agency should play in standard-setting, he was diplomatic, but said he favored a wider approach. “The ITU is part of a fabric,” he told me. “It’s not the only organization involved in standards. I don’t see the ITU as the only forum for these discussions. I would emphasize our ability to partner and collaborate with others.” He added that smaller countries often didn’t have the resources to participate in other standard-setting bodies like the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. “Countries come to the ITU because they know the UN process.”

So would he be able to work with Russia’s candidate for the ITU’s top job, if he is elected next month? “I have to deliver as part of the team” said the Lithuanian, who has worked within the ITU, as well as for several other countries’ telecom ministries and regulators. “If Doreen was elected, we would have a good working relationship. She was once my boss.” For now, Lamanauskas is pressing the flesh ahead of the September 29 election. His most-recent events? A Zoom Q&A with officials from the Caribbean and his own podcast with a Credit Suisse banker.

BY THE NUMBERS

DIGITAL POLICYMAKING PRIORITES FOR THE FALL

I PRESUME, LIKE YOU, I’m in full-on prep mode for what to focus on for the rest of the year. FWIW, here are my non-legislative priorities between now and December. But when it comes to actual lawmaking, there’s a lot going on, both in Brussels and Washington. So as we all get back at it after the summer break, let’s lay out what’s coming. In the EU, there’s a spate of policymaking underway, including proposals on the short-term rental market (aka Airbnb); a couple of updates to the bloc’s cybersecurity rules and the so-called Media Freedom Act.

But those remain sideshows to ongoing horse-trading on Europe’s Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act. Expect some tech companies to file lawsuits objecting to their inclusion in the EU’s new digital antitrust rules — on the grounds that they don’t see themselves as dominant. On the separate content proposals, negotiations are already afoot on how they will be implemented, given the text is very vague on how outsiders will gain access to social media data and what exactly constitutes a risk assessment linked to potentially harmful content and products on these networks.

In Washington, the political tide has somewhat shifted away from the Republicans after the country’s supreme court overturned the Roe versus Wade abortion decision. Democrats are now likely to hold onto the Senate, while control over the House of Representatives is now up for grabs. That’s important. While Joe Biden’s administration hasn’t prioritized digital policymaking, his party’s ability to keep some, if not total, control of the legislative process could give greater impetus for both federal privacy reforms and updated competition legislation. Both the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (the antitrust proposals) and the American Data Privacy and Protection Act (the privacy legislation) aren’t going to pass before the U.S. midterms. But if the Democrats stay in power, there’s two more years to get them through before the 2024 U.S. presidential election.

WONK OF THE WEEK

I’M SHOWING SOME HOMEGROWN BIAS this week to highlight Adrian Smith, chief executive of the United Kingdom’s Alan Turing Institute, a government-funded research group set up to promote work on data science and, since 2017, artificial intelligence. It comprises efforts from 13 of Britain’s top universities.

Smith is no newcomer to the world of AI. Along with his work at the Turing Institute, he is a member of the U.K. government’s AI council, which promotes the ethical use of the technology, as well as the president of the country’s Royal Society, the county’s national academy of sciences.

“We recognize the fundamental importance of the social, behavioral, ethical wrap around to the technology. We systematically expose young researchers to the ethical and social issues,” he said in 2020. “Turing has a big program in that space and we have a public policy program, which inputs into government and government policy awareness of these issues.”

THEY SAID WHAT, NOW?

Germany needs a comprehensive digital awakening. As Europe’s industrial engine and one of the strongest economies in the world, but also as a social market economy with the right to participatory justice, we consider digitization to be crucial for the sustainability of our country,” said a draft of Germany’s digital strategy, which will be announced on August 31, and was obtained by Digital Bridge. “We want to be at the forefront of the international development by setting the pace for innovation and growth through digitization.”

WHAT I’M READING

— Russia’s Spanish-language propaganda machine remains one of the Kremlin’s most important global mouthpieces which are increasingly losing their reach via social media, based on analysis from Joseph Bodnar at the Alliance for Security Democracy.

— The sophistication and frequency of cyberattacks has grown significantly in the first half of 2022, with new ransomware variants doubly in the first six months of the year, according to a report from Fortinent.

— What have all the tech platforms done to protect themselves and their users from election-related interference? Former Facebooker Katie Harbath has put together a handy Google document with everything you need to know since 2003.

— A former senior Twitter executive accused the social media company of failing to protect people’s data and covering up how many fake accounts were on its network. The company denies those allegations. Here’s his full statement to U.S. authorities.

— To keep up with other countries, the U.S. should move ahead with an AI strategy based on proposals from the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy, argue Marc Rotenberg and Merve Hickok for the Council on Foreign Relations.

— TikTok’s failure to respond quickly to misinformation and hate speech during the recent Kenyan election allowed such messages to spread widely and helped to worsen threats of ethnic violence, based on a report from the EU’s election observation mission to Kenya.

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