Digital Service Act

Digital Service Act: Regulating the content of digital platforms, Act 1

The Digital Service Act, proposed by the European Commission in early 2020, seeks to implement a new regulatory framework for digital platforms. Grazia Cecere, an economics researcher at Institut Mines-Télécom Business School, explains various aspects of these regulations.

Why has it become necessary to regulate the content of platforms?

Grazia Cecere: Technological developments have changed the role of the internet and platforms. Previous regulations specified that publishers were responsible for the totality of their content, but that web hosts were only responsible if flagged content was not handled adequately. With the emergence of super platforms and social media, the role of web hosts has changed. Their algorithms lead to more specific distribution of content, through rankings, search engine optimization and highlighting content, which may have significant impacts and contain dangerous biases.

What kind of content must be better regulated by digital platforms?

GC: There are many issues addressed, in particular combating cyber-bullying, disinformation and fake news, as well different types of discrimination. Today the platforms’ algorithms self-regulate based on the available data and may reproduce and amplify discrimination that exists in society. For example, if data analyzed by the algorithm shows wage gaps between men and women, it is likely to build models based on this information. So it’s important to identify these kinds of biases and correct them. Discrimination not only poses ethical problems: it also has economic implications. For example, if an algorithm designed to propose a job profile is biased based on an individual’s gender or skin color, the only important criteria – professional ability – will be less clear.

Read more on l’IMTech: Social media: The everyday sexism of advertising algorithms

What does the Digital Service Act propose so that platforms regulate their content?

C: The Digital Service Act seeks to set clear rules for the responsibilities that come with digital platforms. They must monitor the information distributed on their platforms, especially fake news and potentially harmful content. The goal is also to inform users better about the content and ensure their fundamental rights online. Platforms must also increase their transparency and make data about their activity available. This data would then be available to researchers who could test for whether it contains biases. The purpose of the Digital Service Act is to provide a harmonized legislative and regulatory system across all EU member states.

How can platforms regulate their own content?

GC : Another aspect of the Digital Service Act is providing the member states with regulatory instruments for their platforms. Different kinds of tools can be implemented. For example, a tool called “Fast Tracking” is being developed for Google to detect false information about Covid-19 automatically. This kind of tool, which determines whether information is false based on written content, can be complicated since it requires sophisticated natural language processing tools. Some issues are more complicated to regulate than others.

Are digital platforms starting to take into account the Digital Service Act?

GC: It depends on the platform. AirBnb and Uber, for example, have made a lot of data available to researchers so that they can determine what kinds of discriminatory biases it contains. And Google and Facebook are also providing access to an increasing amount of data. But Snapchat and TikTok are a whole other story!

Will the Digital Service Act also help regulate the internet market?

 GC: The previous regulation, the E-Commerce Directive, dates from 2000. Over time, it has become obsolete. Internet players today are different than they were 20 years ago and some have a lot more power. One of the challenges is for the internet market to remain open to everyone and for new companies to be able to be founded independently from the super platforms to boost competition, since today, any company that is founded depends on the monopoly of big tech companies.

By Antonin Counillon

air intérieur

Our indoor air is polluted, but new materials could provide solutions

Frédéric Thévenet, IMT Lille Douai – Institut Mines-Télécom

We spend 80% of our lives in enclosed spaces, whether at home, at work or in transit. We are therefore very exposed to this air, which is often more polluted than outdoor air. The issue of health in indoor environments is thus associated with chronic exposure to pollutants and to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in particular. These species can cause respiratory tract irritation or headaches, a set of symptoms that is referred to as “sick building syndrome.” One VOC has received special attention: formaldehyde. This compound is a gas at room temperature and pressure and is very frequently present in our indoor environments although it is classified as a category 1B CMR compound (carcinogenic, mutagenic, reprotoxic). It is therefore subject to indoor air quality guidelines which were updated and made more restrictive in 2018.

The sources of volatile organic compounds

VOCs may be emitted in indoor areas by direct, or primary sources. Materials are often identified as major sources, whether associated with the building (building materials, pressed wood, wood flooring, ceiling tiles), furniture (furniture made from particle board, foams), or decoration (paint,  floor and wall coverings). The adhesives, resins and binders contained in these materials are clearly identified and well-documented sources.

To address this issue, mandatory labeling has existed for these products since 2012: they are classified in terms of emissions. While these primary sources related to the building and furniture are now well-documented, those related to household activities and consumer product choices are more difficult to characterize (cleaning activities, cooking, smoking etc.) For example, what products are used for cleaning, are air fresheners or interior fragrances used, are dwellings ventilated regularly? Research is being conducted in our laboratory to better characterize how these products contribute to indoor pollution. We have recently worked on cleaning product emissions and their elimination. And studies have also recently been carried out on the impact of essential oils at our laboratory (at IMT Lille Douai) in partnership with the CSTB (French National Scientific and Technical Center for Building) in coordination with ADEME (French Environmental and Energy Management Agency).

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Emission, deposition and reactivity of essential oils in indoor air (Shadia Angulo-Milhem, IMT Lille Douai). Author provided

In addition to the primary sources of VOCs, there are also secondary sources resulting from the transformation of primary VOCs. These transformations are usually related to oxidative processes. Through these reactions, other kinds of VOCs are also formed, including formaldehyde, among others.

What solutions are there for VOCs in indoor air?

Twenty years ago, an approach referred to as a “destructive process” was being considered. The idea was to pass the air to be treated through a purification system to destroy the VOCs. These can either be stand-alone devices and therefore placed directly inside a room to purify the air, or integrated within a central air handling unit to treat incoming fresh air or re-circulated air.

Photocatalysis was also widely studied to treat VOCs in indoor air, as well as cold plasma. Both of these processes target the oxidation of VOCs, ideally their transformation into CO2 and H2O. Photocatalysis is a process that draws on a material’s – usually titanium dioxide (TiO2) – ability to  adsorb and oxidize VOCs under ultraviolet irradiation. Cold plasma is a process where, under the effect of a high electric field, electrons ionize a fraction of the air circulating in the system, and form oxidizing species.

The technical limitations of these systems lie in the fact that the air to be treated must be directed and moved through the system, and most importantly, the treatment systems must be supplied with power. Moreover, depending on the device’s design and the nature of the effluent to be treated (nature of the VOC, concentration, moisture content etc.) it has been found that some devices may lead to the formation of by-products including formaldehyde, among others. Standards are currently available to oversee the assessment of this type of system’s performance and they are upgraded with technological advances.

Over the past ten years, indoor air remediation solutions have been developed focusing on the adsorption – meaning the trapping – of VOCs. The idea is to integrate materials with adsorbent properties in indoor environments to trap the VOCs. We have seen the emergence of materials, paint, tiles and textiles that incorporate adsorbents in their compositions and claim these properties.

Among these adsorbent materials, there are two types of approaches. Some trap the VOCs, and do not re-emit them – it’s a permanent, irreversible process. The “VOC” trap can therefore completely  fill up after some time and become inoperative, since it is saturated. Today, it seems wiser to develop materials with “reversible” trapping properties: when there is a peak in pollution, the material adsorbs the pollutant, and when the pollution decreases, for example, when a room is ventilated, it releases it, and the pollutant is evacuated through ventilation.

These materials are currently being developed by various academic and industry players working in this field. It is interesting to note that these materials were considered sources of pollution 20 years ago, but can now be viewed as sinks for pollution.

How to test these materials’ ability to remove pollutants

Many technical and scientific obstacles remain, regardless of the remediation strategy chosen. The biggest one is determining whether these new materials can be tested on a 1:1 scale, as they will be used by the end consumer, meaning in “real life.”  

That means these materials must be able to be tested in a life-size room, and with conditions that are representative of real indoor atmospheres, while controlling environmental parameters perfectly. This technical aspect is one of the major research challenges in IAQ since it determines the representativeness and therefore the validity of the results we obtain.  

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Experimental IRINA room (Innovative Room for Indoor Air studies, IMT Lille Douai). Author provided

We developed a large enclosed area in our laboratory for precisely this purpose a few years ago. With its 40 square meters, it is a real room that we can go into, called IRINA (Innovative Room For Indoor Air Studies). Seven years ago, it was France’s first fully controlled and instrumented experimental room on a 1:1 scale. Since its development and validation, it has housed many research projects and we upgrade it and make technical updates every year. It allows us to recreate the indoor air composition of a wood frame house, a Parisian apartment located above a ring road, an operating room and even a medium-haul aircraft cabin. The room makes it possible to effectively study indoor air quality and treatment devices in real-life conditions.

Connected to this room, we have a multitude of measuring instruments, for example to measure VOCs in general, or to monitor the concentration of one in particular, such as formaldehyde.

Frédéric Thévenet, Professor (heterogeneous/atmospheric/indoor air quality physical chemistry), IMT Lille Douai – Institut Mines-Télécom

This article has been republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article (in French).

IMPETUS: towards improved urban safety and security

How can traffic and public transport be managed more effectively in a city, while controlling pollution, ensuring the safety of users and at the same time, taking into account ethical issues related to the use of data and mechanisms to ensure its protection? This is the challenge facing IMPETUS, a €9.3 million project receiving funding of €7.9 million from the Horizon 2020 programme of the European Union[1]. The two-year project launched in September 2020 will develop a tool to increase cities’ resilience to security-related events in public areas. An interview with Gilles Dusserre, a researcher at IMT Mines Alès, a partner in the project.

What was the overall context in which the IMPETUS project was developed?

Gilles Dusserre The IMPETUS project was the result of my encounter with Matthieu Branlat, the scientific coordinator of IMPETUS, who is a researcher at SINTEF (Norwegian Foundation for Scientific and Industrial Research) which supports research and development activities. Matthieu and I have been working together for many years. As part of the eNOTICE European project, he came to take part in a use case organized by IMT Mines Alès on health emergencies and the resilience of hospital organizations. Furthermore, IMPETUS is the concrete outcome of efforts made by research teams at Télécom SudParis and IMT Mines Alès for years to promote joint R&D opportunities between IMT schools.

What are the security issues in smart cities?

GD A smart city can be described as an interconnected urban network of sensors, such as cameras and environmental sensors; it offers a multitude of valuable big data. In addition to better managing traffic and public transport and controlling pollution, this data allows for better police surveillance, adequate crowd control. But these smart systems increase the risk of unethical use of personal data, in particular given the growing use of AI (artificial intelligence) combined with video surveillance networks. Moreover, they increase the attack surface for a city since several interconnected IoT (Internet of Things) and cloud systems control critical infrastructure such as transport, energy, water supply and hospitals (which play a central role in current problems). These two types of risks associated with new security technologies are taken very seriously by the project: a significant part of its activities is dedicated to the impact of the use of these technologies on operational, ethical and cybersecurity aspects. We have groups within the project and external actors overseeing ethical and data privacy issues. They work with project management to ensure that the solutions we develop and deploy adhere to ethical principles and data privacy regulations. Guidelines and other decision-making tools will also be developed for cities to help them identify and take into account the ethical and legal aspects related to the use of intelligent systems in security operations.

What is the goal of IMPETUS?

GD In order to respond to these increasing threats for smart cities, the IMPETUS project will develop an integrated toolbox that covers the entire physical and cybersecurity value chain. The tools will advance the state of the art in several key areas such as detection (social media, web-based threats), simulation and analysis (AI-based tests) and intervention (human-machine interface and eye tracking, optimization of the physical and cyber response based on AI). Although the toolbox will be tailored to the needs of smart city operators, many of the technological components and best practices will be transferable to other types of critical infrastructure.

What expertise are researchers from IMT schools contributing to the project?  

GD The work carried out by Hervé Debar‘s team at Télécom SudParis, in connection with researchers at IMT Mines Alès, resulted in the creation of the overall architecture of the IMPETUS platform, which will integrate the various modules of smart city as proposed in the project. Within this framework, the specification of the various system components, and the system as a whole, will be designed to meet the requirements of the final users (cities of Oslo and Padua), but also to be scalable to future needs.

What technological barriers must be overcome?

GD The architecture has to be modular, so that each individual component can be independently upgraded by the provider of the technology involved. The architecture also has to be integrated, which means that the various IMPETUS modules can exchange information, thereby providing significant added value compared to independent smart city and security solutions that work as silos.  

To provide greater flexibility and efficiency in terms of collecting, analyzing, storing and access to data, the IMPETUS platform architecture will combine IoT and cloud computing approaches. Such an approach will reduce the risks associated with an excessive centralization of large amounts of smart city data and is in line with the expected changes in communication infrastructure, which will be explored at a later date.  

This task will also develop a testing plan. The plan will include the prerequisites, the execution of tests, and the expected results. The acceptance criteria will be defined based on the priority and percentage of successful test cases. In close collaboration with the University of Nimes, IMT Mines Alès will work on innovative approach to environmental risks, in particular related to chemical or biological agents, and to hazard assessment processes.

The consortium includes 17 partners and 11 EU member states and associated countries. What are their respective roles?

GD The consortium was formed to bring together a group of 17 organizations that are complementary in terms of basic knowledge, technical skills, ability to create new knowledge, business experience and expertise. The consortium comprises a complementary group of academic institutions (universities) and research organizations, innovative SMEs, industry representatives, NGOs and final users.

The work is divided into a set of interdependent work packages. It involves interdisciplinary innovation activities that require a high level of collaboration. The overall strategy consists of an iterative exploration, an assessment and a validation, involving the final users at every step.

[1] This project receives funding from Horizon 2020, the European Union’s Framework Programme for Research and Innovation (H2020) under grant agreement N° 883286. Learn more about IMPETUS.