European Union lawmakers have set out a first bundle of proposals for a new digital strategy for the bloc, one that’s intended to drive digitalization across all industries and sectors — and enable what Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has described as ‘A Europe fit for the Digital Age‘.
It could also be summed up as a “scramble for AI,” with the Commission keen to rub out barriers to the pooling of massive European data sets in order to power a new generation of data-driven services as a strategy to boost regional competitiveness vs China and the U.S.
Pushing for the EU to achieve technological sovereignty is a key plank of von der Leyen’s digital policy plan for the 27-Member State bloc.
Presenting the latest on her digital strategy to press in Brussels today, she said: “We want the digital transformation to power our economy and we want to find European solutions in the digital age.”
The top-line proposals are:
- Rules for “high risk” AI systems such as in health, policing, or transport, requiring such systems are “transparent, traceable and guarantee human oversight.”
- A requirement that unbiased data is used to train high-risk systems so that they “perform properly, and to ensure respect of fundamental rights, in particular non-discrimination.”
- Consumer protection rules so authorities can “test and certify” data used by algorithms in a similar way to existing rules that allow for checks to be made on products such as cosmetics, cars or toys.
- A “broad debate” on the circumstances where use of remote use of biometric identification could be justified.
- A voluntary labelling scheme for lower risk AI applications.
- Proposing the creation of an EU governance structure to ensure a framework for compliance with the rules and avoid fragmentation across the bloc.
- A regulatory framework covering data governance, access and reuse between businesses, between businesses and government, and within administrations to create incentives for data sharing, which the Commission says will establish “practical, fair and clear rules on data access and use, which comply with European values and rights such as personal data protection, consumer protection and competition rules.”
- A push to make public sector data more widely available by opening up “high-value datasets” to enable their reuse to foster innovation.
- Support for cloud infrastructure platforms and systems to support the data reuse goals. The Commission says it will contribute to investments in European High Impact projects on European data spaces and trustworthy and energy efficient cloud infrastructures
- Sectoral specific actions to build European data spaces that focus on specific areas such as industrial manufacturing, the green deal, mobility or health
The full data strategy proposal can be found here.
While the Commission’s white paper on AI “excellence and trust” is here.
Next steps will see the Commission taking feedback on the plan — as it kicks off public consultation on both proposals.
A final draft is slated by the end of the year after which the various EU institutions will have their chance to chip into (or chip away at) the plan. So how much policy survives for the long haul remains to be seen.
Tech for good
At a press conference following von der Leyen’s statement Margrethe Vestager, the Commission EVP who heads up digital policy, and Thierry Breton, commissioner for the internal market, went into some of the detail around the Commission’s grand plan for “shaping Europe’s digital future”.
The digital policy package is meant to define how we shape Europe’s digital future “in a way that serves us all”, said Vestager.
The strategy aims to unlock access to “more data and good quality data” to fuel innovation and underpin better public services, she added.
Collectively, the package is about embracing the possibilities AI create while managing the risks, she also said, adding that: “The point obviously is to create trust, rather than fear.”
She noted that the two policy pieces being unveiled by the Commission today, on AI and data, form part of a more wide-ranging digital and industrial strategy with additional proposals still to be set out.
“The picture that will come when we have assembled the puzzle should illustrate three objectives,” she said. “First that technology should world for people and not the other way round; it is first and foremost about purpose The development, the deployment, the uptake of technology must work in the same direction to make a real positive difference in our daily lives.
“Second that we want a fair and competitive economy — a full Single Market where companies of all sizes can compete on equal terms, where the road from garage to scale up is as short as possible. But it also means an economy where the market power held by a few incumbents cannot be used to block competition. It also means an economy were consumers can take it for granted that their rights are being respected and profits are being taxed where they are made”
Thirdly, she said the Commission plan would support “an open, democratic and sustainable society”.
“This means a society where citizens can control the data that they provide, where digit platforms are accountable for the contents that they feature… This is a fundamental thing — that while we use new digital tools, use AI as a tool, that we build a society based on our fundamental rights,” she added, trailing a forthcoming democracy action plan.
Digital technologies must also actively enable the green transition, said Vestager — pointing to the Commission’s pledge to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Digital, satellite, GPS and sensor data would be crucial to this goal, she suggested.
“More than ever a green transition and digital transition goes hand in hand.”
On the data package Breton said the Commission will launch a European and industrial cloud platform alliance to drive interest in building the next gen platforms he said would be needed to enable massive big data sharing across the EU — tapping into 5G and edge computing.
“We want to mobilize up to €2BN in order to create and mobilize this alliance,” he said. “In order to run this data you need to have specific platforms… Most of this data will be created locally and processed locally — thanks to 5G critical network deployments but also locally to edge devices. By 2030 we expect on the planet to have 500BN connected devices… and of course all the devices will exchange information extremely quickly. And here of course we need to have specific mini cloud or edge devices to store this data and to interact locally with the AI applications embedded on top of this.
“And believe me the requirement for these platforms are not at all the requirements that you see on the personal b2c platform… And then we need of course security and cyber security everywhere. You need of course latencies. You need to react in terms of millisecond — not tenths of a second. And that’s a totally different infrastructure.”
“We have everything in Europe to win this battle,” he added. “Because no one has expertise of this battle and the foundation — industrial base — than us. And that’s why we say that maybe the winner of tomorrow will not be the winner of today or yesterday.”
Trustworthy artificial intelligence
On AI Vestager said the major point of the plan is “to build trust” — by using a dual push to create what she called “an ecosystem of excellence” and another focused on trust.
The first piece includes a push by the Commission to stimulate funding, including in R&D and support for research such as by bolstering skills. “We need a lot of people to be able to work with AI,” she noted, saying it would be essential for small and medium sized businesses to be “invited in”.
On trust the plan aims to use risk to determine how much regulation is involved, with the most stringent rules being placed on what it dubs “high risk” AI systems. “That could be when AI tackles fundamental values, it could be life or death situation, any situation that could cause material or immaterial harm or expose us to discrimination,” said Vestager.
To scope this the Commission approach will focus on sectors where such risks might apply — such as energy and recruitment.
If an AI product or service is identified as posing a risk then the proposal is for an enforcement mechanism to test that the product is safe before it is put into use. These proposed “conformity assessments” for high risk AI systems include a number of obligations Vestager said are based on suggestions by the EU’s High Level Expert Group on AI — which put out a slate of AI policy recommendations last year.
The four requirements attached to this bit of the proposals are: 1) that AI systems should be trained using data that “respects European values and rules” and that a record of such data is kept; 2) that an AI system should provide “clear information to users about its purpose, its capabilities but also its limits” and that it be clear to users when they are interacting with an AI rather than a human; 3) AI systems must be “technically robust and accurate in order to be trustworthy”; and 4) they should always ensure “an appropriate level of human involvement and oversight”.
Obviously there are big questions about how such broad-brush requirements will be measured and stood up (as well as actively enforced) in practice.
If an AI product or service is not identified as high risk Vestager noted there would still be regulatory requirements in play — such as the need for developers to comply with existing EU data protection rules.
In her press statement, Commission president von der Leyen highlighted a number of examples of how AI might power a range of benefits for society — from “better and earlier” diagnosis of diseases like cancer to helping with her parallel push for the bloc to be carbon neutral by 2050, such as by enabling precision farming and smart heating — emphasizing that such applications rely on access to big data.
Artificial intelligence is about big data,” she said. “Data, data and again data. And we all know that the more data we have the smarter our algorithms. This is a very simple equation. Therefore it is so important to have access to data that are out there. This is why we want to give our businesses but also the researchers and the public services better access to data.”
“The majority of data we collect today are never ever used even once. And this is not at all sustainable,” she added. “In these data we collect that are out there lies an enormous amount of precious ideas, potential innovation, untapped potential we have to unleash — and therefore we follow the principal that in Europe we have to offer data spaces where you can not only store your data but also share with others. And therefore we want to create European data spaces where businesses, governments and researchers can not only store their data but also have access to other data they need for their innovation.”
She too impressed the need for AI regulation, including to guard against the risk of biased algorithms — saying “we want citizens to trust the new technology”. “We want the application of these new technologies to deserve the trust of our citizens. This is why we are promoting a responsible, human centric approach to artificial intelligence,” she added.
She said the planned restrictions on high risk AI would apply in fields such as healthcare, recruitment, transportation, policing and law enforcement — and potentially others.
“We will be particularly careful with sectors where essential human interests and rights are at stake,” she said. “Artificial intelligence must serve people. And therefore artificial intelligence must always comply with people’s rights. This is why a person must always be in control of critical decisions and so called ‘high risk AI’ — this is AI that potentially interferes with people’s rights — have to be tested and certified before they reach our single market.”
“Today’s message is that artificial intelligence is a huge opportunity in Europe, for Europe. We do have a lot but we have to unleash this potential that is out there. We want this innovation in Europe,” von der Leyen added. “We want to encourage our businesses, our researchers, the innovators, the entrepreneurs, to develop artificial intelligence and we want to encourage our citizens to feel confident to use it in Europe.”
Towards a rights-respecting common data space
The European Commission has been working on building what it dubs a “data economy” for several years at this point, plugging into its existing Digital Single Market strategy for boosting regional competitiveness.
Its aim is to remove barriers to the sharing of non-personal data within the single market. The Commission has previously worked on regulation to ban most data localization, as well as setting out measures to encourage the reuse of public sector data and open up access to scientific data.
Healthcare data sharing has also been in its sights, with policies to foster interoperability around electronic health records, and it’s been pushing for more private sector data sharing — both b2b and business-to-government.
“Every organisation should be able to store and process data anywhere in the European Union,” it wrote in 2018. It has also called the plan a “common European data space“. Aka “a seamless digital area with the scale that will enable the development of new products and services based on data”.
The focus on freeing up the flow of non-personal data is intended to complement the bloc’s long-standing rules on protecting personal data. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into force in 2018, has reinforced EU citizens’ rights around the processing of their personal information — updating and bolstering prior data protection rules.
The Commission views GDPR as a major success story by merit of how it’s exported conversations about EU digital standards to a global audience.
But it’s fair to say that back home enforcement of the GDPR remains a work in progress, some 21 months in — with many major cross-border complaints attached to how tech and adtech giants are processing people’s data still sitting on the desk of the Irish Data Protection Commission where multinationals tend to locate their EU HQ as a result of favorable corporate tax arrangements.
The Commission’s simultaneous push to encourage the development of AI arguably risks heaping further pressure on the GDPR — as both private and public sectors have been quick to see model-making value locked up in citizens’ data.
Already across Europe there are multiple examples of companies and/or state authorities working on building personal data-fuelled diagnostic AIs for healthcare; using machine learning for risk scoring of benefits claimants; and applying facial recognition as a security aid for law enforcement, to give three examples.
There has also been controversy fast following such developments. Including around issues such as proportionality and the question of consent to legally process people’s data — both under GDPR and in light of EU fundamental privacy rights as well as those set out in the European Convention of Human Rights.
Only this month a Dutch court ordered the state to cease use of a blackbox algorithm for assessing the fraud risk of benefits claimants on human rights grounds — objecting to a lack of transparency around how the system functions and therefore also “insufficient” controllability.
The von der Leyen Commission, which took up its five-year mandate in December, is alive to rights concerns about how AI is being applied, even as it has made it clear it intends to supercharge the bloc’s ability to leverage data and machine learning technologies — eyeing economic gains.
The Commission president committed to publishing proposals to regulate AI within the first 100 days — saying she wants a European framework to steer application to ensure powerful learning technologies are used ethically and for the public good.
But a leaked draft of the plan to regulate AI last month suggested it would step back from imposing even a temporary ban on the use of facial recognition technology — leaning instead towards tweaks to existing rules and sector/app specific risk-assessments and requirements.
It’s clear there are competing views at the top of the Commission on how much policy intervention is needed on the tech sector.
Breton has previously voiced opposition to regulating AI — telling the EU parliament just before he was confirmed in post that he “won’t be the voice of regulating AI“.
While Vestager has been steady in her public backing for a framework to govern how AI is applied, talking at her hearing before the EU parliament of the importance of people’s trust and Europe having its own flavor of AI that must “serve humans” and have “a purpose” .
“I don’t think that we can be world leaders without ethical guidelines,” she said then. “I think we will lose it if we just say no let’s do as they do in the rest of the world — let’s pool all the data from everyone, no matter where it comes from, and let’s just invest all our money.”
At the same time Vestager signalled a willingness to be pragmatic in the scope of the rules and how they would be devised — emphasizing the need for speed and agreeing the Commission would need to be “very careful not to over-regulate”, suggesting she’d accept a core minimum to get rules up and running.
Today’s proposal steers away from more stringent AI rules — such as a ban on facial recognition in public places. On biometric AI technologies Vestager described some existing uses as “harmless” during today’s press conference — such as unlocking a phone or for automatic border gates — whereas she stressed the difference in terms of rights risks related to the use of remote biometric identification tech such as facial recognition.
“With this white paper the Commission is launching a debate on the specific circumstance — if any — which might justify the use of such technologies in public space,” she said, putting some emphasis on the word ‘any’.
The Commission is encouraging EU citizens to put questions about the digital strategy for Vestager to answer tomorrow, in a live Q&A at 17.45 CET on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn — using the hashtag #DigitalEU
There is more to come from the Commission on the digital policy front — with a Digital Services Act in the works to update pan-EU liability rules around Internet platforms.
That proposal is slated to be presented later this year and both commissioners said today that details remain to be worked out. The possibility that the Commission will propose rules to more tightly regulate online content platforms already has content farming adtech giants like Facebook cranking up their spin cycles.
During today’s press conference Breton said he would always push for what he dubbed “shared governance” but he warned several times that if platforms don’t agree an acceptable way forward “we will have to regulate” — saying it’s not up for European society to adapt to the platforms but for them to adapt to the EU.
“We will do this within the next eight months. It’s for sure. And everybody knows the rules,” he said. “Of course we’re entering here into dialogues with these platforms and like with any dialogue we don’t know exactly yet what will be the outcome. We may find at the end of the day a good coherent joint strategy which will fulfil our requirements… regarding the responsibilities of the platform. And by the way this is why personally when I meet with them I will always prefer a shared governance. But we have been extremely clear if it doesn’t work then we will have to regulate.”