Wednesday

26th Sep 2018

Exclusive

EU official proposed covering up wifi portal flaw

  • A sign in a holiday home in Scotland. A cock-up over which clock to use in applying for EU wifi subsidies led to a call for a cover-up (Photo: Peter Teffer)

A high-ranked official at the European Commission proposed closing a call for subsidies for municipal wireless internet connections to cover up for a technical design flaw in the application portal.

The director of Electronic Communications Networks and Services, Anthony Whelan, said in a document, made public at EUobserver's request, that his proposed course of action would eliminate "possible criticisms" and "marginalise questions".

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

  • EU digital commissioner Maryia Gabriel ultimately announced the call would be re-run (Photo: European Commission)

He also warned that cancelling the call for proposals – which in the end was what the commission decided to do – could damage the commission's reputation.

On 15 May at 1PM exactly, European municipalities could sign up for an EU-funded voucher, which they could use to pay for the setting up of public wireless internet hotspots, the "WiFi4EU" programme. The vouchers would be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.

In the first five seconds of the call, 3,500 applications had been registered, and more than 11,000 in the first three hours.

Fatal flaw

However, the contractor which built the application portal included a design flaw. The software did not check the time with the commission's clock, but took the clock of the applicants' computer as reference.

This meant that anyone whose computer's clock was running slow, was prevented from applying at exactly 1PM.

Moreover, those whose clock said it was already 1PM or later - while it was in fact not yet 1PM - were able to apply.

"As a consequence, a potentially significant number of applicants might have a reasonable belief that they applied on time, but did not, in fact, do so according to our central server's clock, which recorded them as too early or too late to win a voucher," Whelan admitted in a document dated 28 May.

It was a note to Luis Romero Requena, director general of the commission's legal service.

The document was released by Whelan's directorate-general for communications networks, content and technology (DG Connect), after an access to documents request from this website.

Parts of the text explaining "two vulnerabilities affecting the WiFi4EU online portal" have been heavily redacted.

However, the commission released, mostly in full, three pages in which Whelan discusses two options: cancelling the call or considering the call valid.

He wrote that two other directorates – the Innovation & Networks Executive Agency and the budget department – did not consider it necessary to cancel the call.

"The consequences of cancelling the call from a reputational point of view are very significant, considering the high expectations raised and the flood of applications, all of which would have to be resubmitted in a subsequent call," said Whelan.

"Moreover, reasons would have to be provided for the cancellation, which would point to - or at least risk raising suspicions about - the robustness of the system and the soundness of the initiative itself, which is still in its pilot phase," he added.

Instead, Whelan suggested that the call could be considered valid, and that those applications which had been received before the commission server's clock struck 1PM, would simply be considered inadmissible. After all, the commission is not responsible synchronising the computers of the applicants, he noted.

"Even if some of them proactively request and then contest their respective time stamps, reputational and fairness risks are arguably manageable as we use an objective criterion," he wrote.

He then went on to argue that the call (which was, in fact, suspended a few hours after it had been opened, after the Commission heard of the problem) should be formally closed immediately – even though it was supposed to be open for a month.

Whelan said that this would reassure municipalities that they would not need to reapply, and also safeguarded the call's success "in terms of number of applicants in very little time".

Marginalising questions

He then went on to say that closing the call early would be a way to avoid tough questions while fixing the problem.

"It eliminates possible criticisms by third parties regarding the continuing flaw in the clock feature of the portal, and gives as much time as needed for the most thorough possible vetting of the data security of the amended portal," said the director.

"The announcement of the call's success and termination due to over-subscription is also likely to marginalise questions about the suspension of the portal over the past few days," said Whelan.

He added that early closure is feasible from a "legal point of view".

He also wrote the measure would be proportionate, because the large number of applications made it "pointless (…) to maintain the fiction that vouchers are still potentially available".

Whelan asked the legal service's confirmation that it did not object to the early closure of the call.

It is not clear whether the legal service replied, but someone in the commission decided that Whelan was wrong.

Fairness

Less than three weeks after his note, the commission published a press statement from digital affairs commission Mariya Gabriel.

"The commission is strongly attached to the principles of fairness, transparency and reliability," Gabriel said.

"Therefore, as this technical issue prevented all municipalities from applying on an equal basis, I have asked my services to cancel this first call. The vouchers from this first round of applications will be added to the budget for the next call".

Visual Data

Mediterranean towns ready for EU-sponsored free wifi

The European Union's fund for free wireless internet connection hotspots is most popular in Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Italy, Malta, Slovenia and Romania. Check if your municipality pre-registered.

Free wifi plan backed by MEP committee

A large majority supports giving out subsidies to European cities and municipalities to help them set up wireless internet hotspots.

Analysis

Juncker's unrealistic promise of free wifi

The commission president said "every European village and every city" will have public internet access in 2020, but the statement was not backed up by any legally binding target.

Some EU states face delays in 5G preparation

National governments secured a one-year extension for publishing plans to make radio frequencies available for mobile communications - but some were nevertheless unable to meet the deadline.

News in Brief

  1. UK opposition demand election if parliament rejects Brexit plan
  2. EU to have coordinated plan on AI by December
  3. No UK election before Brexit, says May
  4. Former French PM wants to be mayor of Barcelona
  5. Merkel's wingman in surprise defeat in internal party vote
  6. Orban sends thank-you letters to supportive MEPs
  7. UN chief: World suffering from 'trust deficit disorder'
  8. Stalemate in Sweden as parliament ousts prime minister

Are EU data watchdogs staffed for GDPR?

The success of the new general data protection regulation (GDPR) will depend on whether data protection authorities enforce the new rules - which, in turn, will be at least partly determined by how many people they employ.

Eight countries to miss EU data protection deadline

The EU starts enforcing its general data protection regulation on 25 May - but Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Lithuania and Slovenia won't be ready. The delay will cause legal uncertainty.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSThe vital bioeconomy. New issue of “Sustainable Growth the Nordic Way” out now
  2. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSThe Nordic gender effect goes international
  3. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSPaula Lehtomaki from Finland elected as the Council's first female Secretary General
  4. NORDIC COUNCIL OF MINISTERSNordic design sets the stage at COP24, running a competition for sustainable chairs.
  5. Counter BalanceIn Kenya, a motorway funded by the European Investment Bank runs over roadside dwellers
  6. ACCACompany Law Package: Making the Best of Digital and Cross Border Mobility,
  7. IPHRCivil Society Worried About Shortcomings in EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue
  8. UNESDAThe European Soft Drinks Industry Supports over 1.7 Million Jobs
  9. Mission of China to the EUJointly Building Belt and Road Initiative Leads to a Better Future for All
  10. IPHRCivil society asks PACE to appoint Rapporteur to probe issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
  11. ACCASocial Mobility – How Can We Increase Opportunities Through Training and Education?
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersEnergy Solutions for a Greener Tomorrow

Latest News

  1. EU agrees 'hair-trigger' chemical weapons sanctions
  2. World upside down as EU and Russia unite against US
  3. EU court delivers transparency blow on MEP expenses
  4. Russian with Malta passport in money-laundering probe
  5. Cyprus: Russia's EU weak link?
  6. Missing signature gaffe for Azerbaijan gas pipeline
  7. Every major city in Europe is getting warmer
  8. No chance of meeting EU renewable goals if infrastructure neglected

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNICEFWhat Kind of Europe Do Children Want? Unicef & Eurochild Launch Survey on the Europe Kids Want
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Countries Take a Stand for Climate-Smart Energy Solutions
  3. Mission of China to the EUChina: Work Together for a Better Globalisation
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordics Could Be First Carbon-Negative Region in World
  5. European Federation of Allergy and AirwaysLife Is Possible for Patients with Severe Asthma
  6. PKEE - Polish Energy AssociationCommon-Sense Approach Needed for EU Energy Reform
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region to Lead in Developing and Rolling Out 5G Network
  8. Mission of China to the EUChina-EU Economic and Trade Relations Enjoy a Bright Future
  9. ACCAEmpowering Businesses to Engage with Sustainable Finance and the SDGs
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersCooperation in Nordic Electricity Market Considered World Class Model
  11. FIFAGreen Stadiums at the 2018 Fifa World Cup
  12. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Work Together to Promote Sustainable Development

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us