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European Commission Press Releases

Commission welcomes agreement to better protect geographical indications

Vlad Poptamas

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The European Parliament, the Council and the Commission have reached a political agreement on the rules that lay down how the EU will operate as a member of the Geneva Act, a multilateral treaty for the protection of geographical indications managed by the World Intellectual Property Organization.

Phil Hogan, Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development, said: “With this political agreement, EU geographical indications can have improved protection at multilateral level. It will complement the protection granted through bilateral agreements that already protects EU geographical indications across the world.”

The Geneva Act modernises the 1958 Lisbon Agreement for the Protection of Appellations of Origin and their International Registration and allows international organisations, such as the European Union, to join. The Lisbon Agreement, which currently comprises 28 members including seven EU Member States, offers a way to secure protection for appellations of origin (AO) through a single registration. Being a member of the Geneva Act will allow EU geographical indications to get high-level protection in the future with other parties to the Geneva Act.

The draft regulation agreed will now go for formal endorsement by the European Parliament and the Council. Once that happens, the EU would be ready to formally join the Geneva Act through a separate decision.

Geographical indications (GIs) designate a product originating from a specific geographical area with qualities or characteristics that are essentially linked to the geographical origin, including natural and human factors. Geographical indications also serve to distinguish and reinforce cultural contributions and reward the creativity of traditional know-how. A term registered as protected geographical indication (PGI), or protected designation of origin (PDO) can therefore only be used by producers located in the designated area.

Over 3,000 names of wines, spirits and food products from EU countries and non-EU countries are currently registered in the EU, such as Champagne, Grana Padano, Feta, and Comté.

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European Commission Press Releases

Code of Practice against disinformation: Commission recognises platforms’ efforts ahead of the European elections

Vlad Poptamas

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Photo source: avrupa.info.tr
Reading Time: 5 minutes

 

Today, the European Commission published the reports and analysis of the progress made in April 2019 by Facebook, Google and Twitter to fight disinformation. The three online platforms are signatories to the Code of Practice against disinformation and have committed to report monthly on measures taken ahead of the European Parliament elections in May 2019.

Vice-President for the Digital Single Market Andrus Ansip, Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality Věra Jourová, Commissioner for the Security Union Julian King, and Commissioner for the Digital Economy and Society Mariya Gabriel said in a joint statement:

We recognise the continued progress made by Facebook, Google and Twitter on their commitments to increase transparency and protect the integrity of the upcoming elections.

We welcome the robust measures that all three platforms have taken against manipulative behaviour on their services, including coordinated disinformation operations. They have also provided data on measures to improve the scrutiny of ad placements. However, more needs to be done to strengthen the integrity of their services, including advertising services. Moreover, the data provided still lacks the level of detail necessary to allow for an independent and accurate assessment of how the platforms’ policies have actually contributed to reducing the spread of disinformation in the EU.

All three signatories have now created publicly accessible political ad libraries and enabled searches through APIs, which is a clear improvement. We regret however that Google and Twitter were not able to develop and implement policies for the identification and public disclosure of issue-based ads, which can be sources of divisive public debate during elections, hence prone to disinformation.

Looking beyond the European elections, all signatories should now step up their efforts to broaden cooperation with fact checkers in all Member States as well as to empower users and the research community. In particular, online platforms need to put in practice their broader set of commitments under the Code of Practice, notably by engaging with traditional media to develop transparency and trustworthiness indicators for information sources so that users are offered a fair choice of relevant, verified information.

We also call upon platforms to cooperate closer with the research community to identify and access relevant datasets, which would enable better detection and analysis of disinformation campaigns, sound monitoring of the Code’s implementation and impact, and independent oversight of the functioning of algorithms, for the benefit of all citizens.

Finally, following statements from Microsoft that it also plans to subscribe to the Code, we encourage even wider take-up of the Code amongst the online platforms as well as advertisers and ad-network operators, so that the Code can reach its full potential.”

Main outcome of the reports:

  • Google reported on additional measures taken to improve scrutiny of ad placements in the EU, including a breakdown per Member State. It noted the availability of the EU Transparency Report on political advertising and its searchable ad library, including the possibility to use Google Cloud’s BigQuery application programming interface to run customised queries. Google reported on its ongoing efforts to provide transparency around issue-based advertising, but announced that a solution would not be in place before the European elections. Global data was again provided on the removal of a significant number of YouTube channels for violation of its policies on spam, deceptive practices and scams, and impersonation.
  • Facebook reported on measures taken in the EU against ads that violated its policies for containing low quality, disruptive, misleading or false content or trying to circumvent its systems. It started enforcing its policy on political and issue-based advertising mid-April and removing non-compliant ads from Facebook and Instagram. The April report also provided information on the opening of its elections operation centre in Dublin, which involves specialists covering all EU Member States and languages. Facebook reported of taking down a coordinated inauthentic behaviour network originating from Russia and focusing on Ukraine. The report did not state whether this network also affected users in the EU. Furthermore, Facebook reported on new access for researchers to its CrowdTangle application programming interface and its URLs Data Set.
  • Twitter reported on ads rejected for not complying with its policies on unacceptable business practices and quality ads. It provided information on ads not served because of uncompleted certification process that is obligatory for political campaign advertisers. Twitter reported on a new election integrity policy, prohibiting specific categories of manipulative behaviour and content, such as misleading information about how to participate in the elections and voter intimidation. Twitter provided figures on measures against spam and fake accounts, but did not provide further insights on these measures, i.e. how they relate to activity in the EU.

Next steps

Today’s reports cover measures taken by online companies in April 2019. They allow the Commission to verify that effective policies to ensure integrity of the electoral processes are in place before the European elections in May 2019.

The monthly reporting agreed under the Code of Practice lasts until the European elections. The last set of reports by the platforms will be published in June. As agreed in March, EU leaders will come back to the issue of disinformation at the June European Council. The Commission’s assessment will feed into these discussions.

By the end of 2019, the Commission will carry out a comprehensive assessment of the Code’s initial 12-month period. Should the results prove unsatisfactory, the Commission may propose further measures, including of a regulatory nature.

Background

The Code of Practice has been translated into all official EU languages, which will facilitate implementation at national level, make it more accessible to all citizens and further increase its uptake.

The monthly reporting cycle builds on the Code of Practice, and is part of the Action Plan against disinformation that the European Union adopted last December to build up capabilities and strengthen cooperation between Member States and EU institutions to proactively address the threats posed by disinformation.

The reporting signatories committed to the Code of Practice in October 2018 on a voluntary basis. The Code aims to reach the objectives set out by the Commission’s Communication presented in April 2018 by setting a wide range of commitments:

  • Disrupt advertising revenue for accounts and websites misrepresenting information and provide advertisers with adequate safety tools and information about websites purveying disinformation.
  • Enable public disclosure of political advertising and make effort towards disclosing issue-based advertising.
  • Have a clear and publicly available policy on identity and online bots and take measures to close fake accounts.
  • Offer information and tools to help people make informed decisions, and facilitate access to diverse perspectives about topics of public interest, while giving prominence to reliable sources.
  • Provide privacy-compliant access to data to researchers to track and better understand the spread and impact of disinformation.

Ahead of the European elections in May 2019, the Commission is monitoring the progress of the platforms towards meeting the commitments that are most relevant and urgent ahead of the election campaign: scrutiny of ad placements; political and issue-based advertising; and integrity of services. Such monitoring is conducted in cooperation with the European Regulators Group for Audiovisual Media Services (ERGA).

The Code of Practice goes hand-in-hand with the Recommendation included in the election package announced by President Juncker in the 2018 State of the Union Address to ensure free, fair and secure European Parliament elections. The measures include greater transparency in online political advertisements and the possibility to impose sanctions for the illegal use of personal data to deliberately influence the outcome of the European elections. Member States were also advised to set up a national election cooperation network of relevant authorities – such as electoral, cybersecurity, data protection and law enforcement authorities – and to appoint a contact point to participate in a European-level election cooperation network. The first meeting at the European level took place on 21 January 2019, the second one on 27 February, and the third on 4 April.

The Code of Practice complements also a number of measures to support media literacy as well as the creation of a network of independent fact-checkers and researchers. In particular, the Commission is funding the project Social Observatory for Disinformation and Social Media Analysis (SOMA), which provides a collaborative platform for independent European fact-checkers. The ultimate objective of all these measures is to strengthen the role of independent civil society organisations and the users to flag disinformation threats and cooperate with the platforms for a better detection and analysis of disinformation patterns and trends.

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European Commission Press Releases

Antitrust: Commission fines Barclays, RBS, Citigroup, JPMorgan and MUFG €1.07 billion for participating in foreign exchange spot trading cartel

Vlad Poptamas

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Photo source: fortune.com
Reading Time: 6 minutes

 

In two settlement decisions, the European Commission has fined five banks for taking part in two cartels in the Spot Foreign Exchange market for 11 currencies – Euro, British Pound, Japanese Yen, Swiss Franc, US, Canadian, New Zealand and Australian Dollars, and Danish, Swedish and Norwegian crowns.

The first decision (so-called “Forex – Three Way Banana Split” cartel) imposes a total fine of €811 197 000 on Barclays, The Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), Citigroup and JPMorgan.

The second decision (so-called “Forex- Essex Express” cartel) imposes a total fine of €257 682 000 on Barclays, RBS and MUFG Bank (formerly Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi).

UBS is an addressee of both decisions, but was not fined as it revealed the existence of the cartels to the Commission.

 

Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy said:“Companies and people depend on banks to exchange money to carry out transactions in foreign countries. Foreign exchange spot trading activities are one of the largest markets in the world, worth billions of euros every day. Today we have fined Barclays, The Royal Bank of Scotland, Citigroup, JPMorgan and MUFG Bank and these cartel decisions send a clear message that the Commission will not tolerate collusive behaviour in any sector of the financial markets. The behaviour of these banks undermined the integrity of the sector at the expense of the European economy and consumers”.

Foreign Exchange, or “Forex”, refers to the trading of currencies. When companies exchange large amounts of a certain currency against another, they usually do so through a Forex trader. The main customers of Forex traders include asset managers, pension funds, hedge funds, major companies and other banks.

Forex spot order transactions are meant to be executed on the same day at the prevailing exchange rate. The most liquid and traded currencies worldwide (five of which are used in the European Economic Area) are the Euro, British Pound, Japanese Yen, Swiss Franc, US, Canadian, New Zealand and Australian Dollars, and Danish, Swedish and Norwegian crowns.

The Commission’s investigation revealed that some individual traders in charge of Forex spot trading of these currencies on behalf of the relevant banks exchanged sensitive information and trading plans, and occasionally coordinated their trading strategies through various online professional chatrooms.

The commercially sensitive information exchanged in these chatrooms related to:

1)     outstanding customers’ orders (i.e. the amount that a client wanted to exchange and the specific currencies involved, as well as indications on which client was involved in a transaction),

2)     bid-ask spreads (i.e. prices) applicable to specific transactions,

3)     their open risk positions (the currency they needed to sell or buy in order to convert their portfolios into their bank’s currency), and

4)     other details of current or planned trading activities.

The information exchanges, following the tacit understanding reached by the participating traders, enabled them to make informed market decisions on whether to sell or buy the currencies they had in their portfolios and when.

Occasionally, these information exchanges also allowed the traders to identify opportunities for coordination, for example through a practice called “standing down” (whereby some traders would temporarily refrain from trading activity to avoid interfering with another trader within the chatroom).

Most of the traders participating in the chatrooms knew each other on a personal basis – for example, one chatroom was called Essex Express ‘n the Jimmy because all the traders but “James” lived in Essex and met on a train to London. Some of the traders created the chatrooms and then invited one another to join, based on their trading activities and personal affinities, creating closed circles of trust.

The traders, who were direct competitors, typically logged in to multilateral chatrooms on Bloomberg terminals for the whole working day, and had extensive conversations about a variety of subjects, including recurring updates on their trading activities.

The Commission’s investigation revealed the existence of two separate infringements concerning foreign exchange spot trading:

–      The Three Way Banana Split infringement encompasses communications in three different, consecutive chatrooms (“Three way banana split / Two and a half men / Only Marge”) among traders from UBS, Barclays, RBS, Citigroup and JPMorgan. The infringement started on 18 December 2007 and ended on 31 January 2013.

–      The Essex Express infringement encompasses communications in two chatrooms (“Essex Express ‘n the Jimmy” and “Semi Grumpy Old men”) among traders from UBS, Barclays, RBS and Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi (now MUFG Bank). The infringement started on 14 December 2009 and ended on 31 July 2012.

The following table details the participation and the duration of each company’s involvement in each of the two infringements:

  Company Start End
Three Way Banana Split / Two and a half men/ Only Marge UBS

Barclays

RBS

Citigroup

JP Morgan

10/10/2011

18/12/2007

18/12/2007

18/12/2007

26/07/2010

31/01/2013

01/08/2012

19/04/2010

31/01/2013

31/01/2013

Essex Express / Semi Grumpy Old men  

UBS

Barclays

RBS

Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi (now MUFG Bank)

14/12/2009

14/12/2009

14/09/2010

08/09/2010

31/07/2012

31/07/2012

08/11/2011

12/09/2011

 

Fines

The fines were set on the basis of the Commission’s 2006 Guidelines on fines (see also MEMO).

In setting the fines, the Commission took into account, in particular, the sales value in the European Economic Area (EEA) achieved by the cartel participants for the products in question, the serious nature of the infringement, its geographic scope and its duration.

Under the Commission’s 2006 Leniency Notice:

  • UBS received full immunity for revealing the existence of the cartels, thereby avoiding an aggregate fine of ca. €285 million.
  • In the Three Way Banana Split infringement, all banks involved benefited from reductions of their fines for their cooperation with the Commission investigation. The reductions reflect the timing of their cooperation and the extent to which the evidence they provided helped the Commission to prove the existence of the cartel in which they were involved.
  • In the Essex Express infringement, all banks except one benefited from reductions of their fines for their cooperation with the Commission investigation. The reductions reflect the timing of their cooperation and the extent to which the evidence they provided helped the Commission to prove the existence of the cartels in which they were involved. MUFG Bank (formerly Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi) did not apply for leniency.

In addition, under the Commission’s 2008 Settlement Notice, the Commission applied a reduction of 10% to the fines imposed on the companies in view of their acknowledgment of participation in the cartels and of their liability in this respect.

The breakdown of the fines imposed on each company is as follows:

 

THREE WAY BANANA SPLIT
Company Reduction under Leniency Notice Reduction under Settlement Notice Fine (€)
UBS 100% 10% 0
Barclays 50% 10% 116 107 000
RBS 30% 10% 155 499 000
Citigroup 20% 10% 310 776 000
JPMorgan 10% 10% 228 815 000
TOTAL 811 197 000

 

ESSEX EXPRESS
Company Reduction under Leniency Notice Reduction under Settlement Notice Fine (€)
UBS 100% 10% 0
Barclays 50% 10% 94 217 000
RBS 25% 10% 93 715 000
BOTM   10% 69 750 000
TOTAL 257 682 000

 

 

Procedural Background

Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) and Article 53 of the EEA Agreement prohibit cartels and other restrictive business practices.

The Commission’s investigation in this case started in September 2013, with an immunity application under the Commission Leniency Notice submitted by UBS, which was followed by applications for reduction of fines by other parties.

The Commission will continue pursuing other ongoing procedures concerning past conduct in the Forex spot trading market.

Fines imposed on companies found in breach of EU antitrust rules are paid into the general EU budget. This money is not earmarked for particular expenses, but Member States’ contributions to the EU budget for the following year are reduced accordingly. The fines therefore help to finance the EU and reduce taxpayers’ contributions.

More information on this case will be available under the case number AT.40135 in the public case register on the Commission’s competition website, once confidentiality issues have been dealt with. For more information on the Commission’s action against cartels, see its cartels website.

 

The settlement procedure

Today’s decisions are the 30th and 31st settlement decisions since the introduction of the settlement procedure for cartels in June 2008 (see press release and MEMO). In a settlement, companies acknowledge their participation in a cartel and their liability for it. Settlements are foreseen in Antitrust Regulation 1/2003 and allow the Commission to apply a simplified and shortened procedure. This benefits consumers and taxpayers as it reduces costs. It also benefits antitrust enforcement as it frees up resources to tackle other suspected cartels. Finally, the companies themselves benefit in terms of quicker decisions and a 10% reduction in fines.

 

Action for damages

Any person or company affected by anti-competitive behaviour as described in this case may bring the matter before the courts of the Member States and seek damages. The case law of the Court and Council Regulation 1/2003 both confirm that in cases before national courts, a Commission decision constitutes binding proof that the behaviour took place and was illegal. Even though the Commission has fined the cartel participants concerned, damages may be awarded without being reduced on account of the Commission fine.

The Antitrust Damages Directive, which Member States had to implement by 27 December 2016, makes it easier for victims of anti-competitive practices to obtain damages. More information on antitrust damages actions, including a practical guide on how to quantify antitrust harm, is available here.

 

Whistleblower tool

The Commission has set up a tool to make it easier for individuals to alert it about anti-competitive behaviour while maintaining their anonymity. The tool protects whistleblowers’ anonymity through a specifically-designed encrypted messaging system that allows two way communication. The tool is accessible via this link.

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European Commission Press Releases

State aid: Commission publishes the non-confidential version of decision to open in-depth investigation into Luxembourg’s tax treatment of Huhtamäki

Vlad Poptamas

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Photo source: Shutterstock.com
Reading Time: 1 minute

 

Today, the Commission has published the non-confidential version of its decision, adopted on 7 March 2019, to open an in-depth investigation into Luxembourg’s tax treatment of Huhtamäki. The Commission has concerns that three tax rulings granted by Luxembourg to Finnish food and drink packaging company Huhtamäki may have allowed the company to pay less tax and, hence, given it an unfair advantage over its competitors, in breach of EU State aid rules. The opening of an in-depth investigation gives Luxembourg and interested third parties an opportunity to submit comments. It does not prejudge the outcome of the investigation. One of the three tax rulings under investigation was disclosed as part of the over 500 files disclosed as part of the “Luxleaks” investigation led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in 2014. Furthermore, about 200 files disclosed as part of “Luxleaks” concerned financing companies and intercompany financing. In January 2017, following discussions with the Commission, Luxembourg introduced changes to their national tax rules to make the tax treatment of financing companies more stringent. The new rules, which concern a significant number of “Luxleaks” rulings aim to ensure that financing companies are taxed sufficiently and imply that the rulings regarding certain financing companies issued before 2017, including those from the Luxleaks files, no longer bind the tax authorities in Luxembourg. The decision is available under the case number SA.50400 on the Commission’s competition website.

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