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23rd Oct 2020

Exclusive

EU commission redacted too much in 'WiFi4EU' papers

  • The Berlaymont building of the European Commission, where the secretariat-general is based (Photo: Peter Teffer)

The European Commission has released information it previously kept hidden about the technical problems faced by its wifi fund portal - after an appeal by EUobserver.

The portal was set up for municipalities to apply for EU subsidies to install free public wifi hotspots. The subsidies from the so-called WiFi4EU fund would be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.

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  • EU digital affairs commissioner Mariya Gabriel overruled DG Connect by arguing in favour of transparency about the WiFi4EU fund's technical glitch (Photo: European Commission)

The internal documents show that the portal suffered from a potential data breach, and a possibility for municipalities to manipulate the time of application.

They also reveal that different corners of the commission held conflicting visions on how transparent to be about the technical problems.

EUobserver filed an access to documents request about the WiFi4EU glitches in June.

The request was first dealt with by the commission's directorate-general Communications Networks, Content and Technology (DG Connect).

DG Connect released documents related to the WiFi4EU portal's technical error on 31 July. These papers showed that a high-ranking civil servant at DG Connect, director of electronic communications networks and services Anthony Whelan, proposed to cover up the technical design flaw of the portal – a course of action which was later dismissed.

However, DG Connect heavily redacted some of the documents.

It said several redacted parts of the papers were out of the scope of EUobserver's application – which this website challenged in an appeal on 7 August.

Meanwhile, it emerged that DG Connect was indeed redacting too much, by comparing a released version of one of the documents to a version that was leaked by news website New Europe.

On Monday (29 October), the office of commission secretary-general Martin Selmayr sent EUobserver its official reply to the appeal.

The secretariat-general said that it conducted "a fresh review of the reply given by the Directorate-General concerned at the initial stage", and concluded that "wider partial access" should be given.

Some personal information is still redacted, as is customary.

The newly-released documents confirmed that DG Connect redacted large chunks of information under the guise of it being "out of scope" that were actually relevant, but perhaps politically embarrassing to the DG.

For example, one of the concerned documents (version released by DG Connect, version released by secretariat-general) was a note from the Innovation and Networks Executive Agency (INEA) - which implements the initiative.

It is a note to the highest civil servant at DG Connect, director-general Roberto Viola, accompanying the decision to cancel the first call for applications, because of the technical problems.

DG Connect had redacted the part which said that the call was cancelled "in the light of the political orientations by Commissioner [Mariya] Gabriel (as communicated to INEA by DG CNECT) and in the light of the advice from the Legal Service".

This suggests that the DG Connect did not want it publicly known that it had been overruled.

More delays

Meanwhile, it is still unclear when municipalities who want to apply for a voucher to set up free wifi hotspots will be able to do so.

The portal is back online, but it seems that the new call for applications will be delayed.

An INEA webpage about the WiFi4EU initiative said that the date of the call for proposals "will be announced shortly".

It also listed in an "indicative call timeline" that the opening of call for applications would take place at "XX October 2018 (13:00:00 CEST)", and the close of call for applications at "XX October 2018 (17:00:00 CEST)".

With only two days left in October as of Tuesday, it seems likely that an updated timeline will be needed.

The commission's handling of EUobserver's documents request appeal also came too late.

Legally, the secretariat-general should have responded by 19 September.

The response on Monday came less than a week after the European Ombudsman informed EUobserver that it had considered a complaint about the commission's late reply as admissible, and had contacted the commission for a swift resolution.

Exclusive

Commission tried to hide details of 'WiFi4EU' glitch

The commission heavily redacted documents released to EUobserver because they were reportedly 'out of scope'. Transparency campaigner Helen Darbishire says however the information was "clearly directly relevant to the request".

Exclusive

EU official proposed covering up wifi portal flaw

Director of Electronic Communications Networks and Services Anthony Whelan says in an internal document that he wanted to eliminate "possible criticisms" and "marginalise questions".

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.

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