February 19, 2020

European Commission proposes AI regulation in “ambitious” digital strategy

By Robert Scammell

The European Commission has published its new European digital strategy, which includes proposals for tighter regulation of artificial intelligence (AI) and a data strategy aimed at levelling the playing field with US tech giants.

The proposals form part of the Commission’s ‘Europe Fit for the Digital Age’ strategy report, which “aims to make [digital] transformation work for people and businesses”.

“Currently, a small number of Big Tech firms hold a large part of the world’s data,” the European strategy for data, published today, reads. “This could reduce the incentives for data-driven businesses to emerge, grow and innovate in the EU today, but numerous opportunities lie ahead.”

It states that in the US the “organisation of the data space is left to the private sector, with considerable concentration effects”.

Meanwhile China has a “combination of government surveillance with a strong control of Big Tech companies over massive amounts of data without sufficient safeguards for individuals,” the document notes.

In response, the Commission plans to create a “genuine single market for data” that makes it more attractive for organisations to store their personal and non-personal data within the EU.

The proposals set out the need to create “an attractive policy environment” that means data can flow throughout the EU while applying data protection values established under GDPR.

Promoting ethical AI

Also published today as part of the European digital strategy is the Commission’s White Paper on Artificial Intelligence, which has the “twin objective” of promoting the use of AI and addressing risks such as algorithmic bias and facial recognition technology.

It states that AI is set to improve areas from healthcare to transport, but must be “built on trust” and “grounded in [European] values and fundamental rights such as human dignity and privacy protection”.

It’s AI white paper will take into account input obtained during the Commission’s High-Level Expert Group on AI piloting phase to create AI ethics guidelines.

The use of live facial recognition globally has proven controversial, with the Commission acknowledging the “specific risks” it poses for “fundamental rights”.

As such, the Commission will “launch a broad European debate on the specific circumstances, if any, which might justify” the use of facial recognition technology.

Measures put forward in the European digital strategy are not laws or regulations. Instead, the Commission is now consulting on its proposals, with the view of adopting policies into 2021’s Data Act.

Executive Vice President for A Europe Fit for the Digital Age, Margrethe Vestager, said: “We want every citizen, every employee, every business to stand a fair chance to reap the benefits of digitalisation. Whether that means driving more safely or polluting less thanks to connected cars; or even saving lives with AI-driven medical imagery that allows doctors to detect diseases earlier than ever before.”

Reaction to European digital strategy proposals

John Buyers, head of international AI at law firm Osborne Clarke LLP, described the proposal’s “one-size-fits-all approach” as “very ambitious”.

“A lot of industries will be concerned that the right balance has been struck between enabling a vibrant European market in these new technologies and protecting the rights of EU citizens,” he said.

Georgina Kon, TMT partner at law firm Linklaters, said:

“Some may say this plan to build a trusted ecosystem for AI is long overdue, but you can see from the paper perhaps why this has taken so long. There is a huge mesh of legislation that impacts – and could impact – AI, and a broad set of regulators that admit they haven’t got the right skills in-house to regulate the use of AI. There are also some legislative holes that need filling.

“Even so, if the EU is able to achieve its vision of engaging with industry in high-risk sectors where both the potential risk and rewards are huge to build the right legislative and voluntary regulation for AI, it will have given itself a huge competitive edge in the digital economy.”

Dr Bob De Caux, VP of AI and RPA at software firm IFS, said: “By choosing to focus their new AI rules on ethics and transparency, the EU is positioning its AI vision in a way that can help a broad range of established businesses rather than just startups, while differentiating itself from the approaches of the US and China.”

For the UK post-Brexit, the digital strategy is “highly significant”, added Osborne Clarke’s Buyers.

“Data and AI are areas where we can’t assume the UK will opt for alignment,” he said. “So this White Paper sets a clear threshold for UK regulatory bodies to work within deciding the right direction for the UK AI industry.  Which direction are we going to take? The decision could prove to be highly determinative.”

Read more: EU presents “trustworthy” AI ethics guidelines

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