A statue holding the symbol of the Euro in front of the European Parliament building.
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The EU is making tech regulation look easy

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Where there’s a will, there’s a way

If there’s been a defining narrative in technology over recent years, it’s surely been that companies overreach, piss people off, get yelled at by lawmakers and then kind of get away with it for a while.

And that’s pretty understandable, you know? As I sat in a Brussels event space in the shadow of the European Commission this week, officials and lawmakers talked tech policy at POLITICO’s AI and Tech Summit, and I was reminded of something over and over and over: Tech regulation is hard. I mean, I already knew that and you already knew that. But sometimes being reminded of the complexity gives you pause. How do you build regulation that stops bad stuff? How do you make sure it doesn’t dent the economy too badly? How do you predict unforeseen side effects? How do you keep up with an industry predicated on advancement? How do you get politicians to agree on a solution? Sure, there may be answers to those questions, but they’re not straightforward. No wonder tech companies are all too happy to weigh in with suggestions for how to do it; there’s a good chance their ideas might just stick.

Of course, that wasn’t the only thing to take away from POLITICO’s event. The other point that was unavoidable was that the EU has seemingly chosen to ignore the fact that this is supposed to be difficult. It’s on a tech regulation roll right now. In March, European authorities announced they had agreed to new rules for Big Tech competition under the Digital Markets Act, which is focused on what the EU calls digital gatekeeper platforms worth over 75 billion euros in areas such as messaging, social networking, browsers and mobile operating systems. (So, you know, Alphabet, Apple, Meta and the like.) And the EU just approved the Digital Services Act, which seeks to police tech platforms more aggressively over illegal content on online platforms.

It’s hard to overstate how big a deal these pieces of legislation are. Our policy reporter Ben Brody called the DMA a BFD, explaining that it was the start of something “genuinely transformational” that will force the world’s most powerful companies to make big changes. The DSA would also force the hands of the world’s biggest tech companies in an unprecedented way. It’s a year or two until these swing into action and actually bite, but this is coming. And perhaps one of the most surprising things about the DMA and the DSA is how quickly they’ve moved forward: Both were proposed in December 2020, meaning they’ve worked their way through the machinery of the EU in less than 18 months. That is fast. The EU is making something very hard look very easy.

“I think it's an expression of political will,” Margrethe Vestager, executive vice president of the European Commission, said of the speed of the progress. “That’s because our legislators, the parliament and the council: They share our sense of urgency that this cannot wait.” Speaking about the DSA specifically, she added, “I think that is a very important signal to citizens, that our democracy has a willingness to make sure that what we see and consider illegal offline should also be seen and considered as illegal online.”

Things aren’t so straightforward right now in the U.S. Getting much of anything through Congress is a slog, at best. And the policies being created at the state and local level to fill the void at the federal level just add layers of confusion and problems for the future. “The framework in the United States right now, it is really very fractured in the sense where you have state and local governments moving forward; you have very, very different federal agencies moving forward on what they specialize in,” mused Keith Sonderling, commissioner on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, during one panel at the event. “You don't have that [larger] framework, unlike the EU.”

It's not all plain sailing for the EU, though. Its AI Act, proposed in April 2021, seems to have proven more controversial than the DMA and DSA, with issues such as law enforcement applications of AI and biometric identification proving particularly divisive. And that piece of legislation also includes outright bans on the use of some technologies for specific applications considered “a clear threat to the safety, livelihoods and rights of people," which doesn’t sit well with some politicians. “Banning is quite easy, but it’s not future-oriented,” argued Axel Voss, a minister of the European Parliament of the Christian Democratic Union of Germany, during one session at the event. “Banning is not, from my point of view, very wise.” Perhaps not helping the situation here is the even greater level of complexity when it comes to AI, with its problems of bias and algorithmic opacities and a general pace of development that puts other technologies to shame.

Vestager doesn’t seem to be too concerned, though. “No mayor, no regional government, no prime minister can … take the responsibility of implementing AI if there is a risk that it is biased against some of its citizens,” she argued. Hence the political will, I guess.

While the U.S. might be wringing its hands about how to regulate tech and getting nowhere fast, the EU is through with talking and inclined to take action. The regulation that tech companies have so long avoided is coming. And something about the atmosphere in that room in Brussels tells me it’s not going to stop coming for a very long time.


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You tell us

Over the last week, our own Kate Kaye has documented how companies are using AI to monitor your mood during calls. And it's fair to say that the response has been one of concern. So we asked you: What keeps you up at night when it comes to how companies are using and rolling out AI? You offered a wide range of insights.

“One of the many things that worry me about [the] use of AI and voice, accents and mannerisms data collection is what bad actors could do with it. For instance, a President calls and threatens another. A son calls his old dad needing something. If the ability to use it became commonplace, the damage is endless.” — Anne Craigmyle

“Mankind's willfully ignorant hyper-optimism in thinking we can harness its power. Once you jump on the tiger you can never dismount. To imagine we can maintain control over such unimaginable power that was crafted to surpass us — intelligence, speed, coordination, survivability — all superior and accelerating the gap indefinitely; how can we possibly devise a set of instructions that will shield us from that disparity? Hubris, thy name is human.” — Chris B

“The people out in California have been using strategy games to round up AI as enemies for people in stuff like Starcraft 2. That shit is insane.” — Sean Ellison

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