Europe’s Tech Czar Says Strict Rules Will Build Public Trust in AI

Margrethe Vestager, once Silicon Valley’s top foe, may turn into its best ally by pushing for the tighter oversight that Big Tech says it needs to be saved from itself.

As European Union competition chief since 2014, Vestager has targeted Alphabet’s GoogleAmazon.comApple, and Facebook, among others, for allegedly abusing their market positions or dodging taxes. Her heavy fines and penalties earned the EU antitrust watchdog a reputation around the world as one of the only regulators unafraid to stand up to U.S. tech giants.

Now, in a beefed-up role as the bloc’s tech czar—her formal title is executive vice president of the European Commission for a Europe Fit for the Digital Age—she’s responsible not only for enforcing rules as antitrust cop but also for designing broader tech policies. Vestager, who took on the job at the end of 2019, is clear about her mission: to lay down the law so European citizens feel safe in the digital world amid ballooning corporate power, rapid technological developments, and growing disillusionment among users about how the largest tech platforms handle their personal data. Her plan to use regulation to restore trust in technology—starting with artificial intelligence—is something even Google and Facebook Inc. are conceding is necessary for the sake of their businesses.

When Vestager unveiled her proposal in February to regulate AI, she said the EU wants to embrace the benefits the technology brings while also tackling its risks. Her approach is to focus regulation on the applications that affect people’s lives or legal status, such as self-driving cars and remote facial recognition. The goal is to ensure that citizens have confidence in how AI is used and developed so people embrace it fully, she says. And she’s sticking to that tune even as companies urgently rush out various AI solutions—from diagnostics to surveillance—in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

“The reason why we all stay at home, that we keep a distance, is, of course, that we trust our authorities,” Vestager said in in a recent online chat hosted by Brussels-based think tank Friends of Europe, referring to the confinement measures imposed around the world by governments seeking to curb the outbreak. “Trust is our most important tool in fighting the pandemic, and that of course should also be present when we use technology.”

Vestager is an avid Twitter user, but she shuns Facebook and promotes DuckDuckGo as an alternative to Google’s search engine. In a different web chat earlier this year, she was careful to answer citizens’ questions from three services: Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. She frequently speaks of the harm caused by social media and devices that seal people off from those around them. “If people want a society where no one looks each other in the eyes, where no one shares a comment about the weather waiting for the bus because they’re all playing Candy Crush, that’s the society we get,” she told Bloomberg News in October.

Vestager’s mantra as antitrust chief in recent years focused on fairness, a concept that drew criticism from companies and lawyers about its subjective nature, particularly with regards to investigations. In her broadened role, she emphasizes trust—and so far, she’s getting less pushback. After years of lobbying to thwart legislation, the Silicon Valley companies that arguably face some of the biggest trust issues amid privacy and antitrust probes—namely Google and Facebook—are calling for regulation on AI and illegal content, respectively.

On a recent visit to Brussels, Google Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai said before a meeting with Vestager: “There is no question in my mind that artificial intelligence needs to be regulated.” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg repeated his calls for more regulatory oversight a few weeks later on a trip to Munich and Brussels. “Even if I’m not going to agree with every regulation in the near term, I do think it’s going to be the thing that helps create trust and better governance of the internet and will benefit everyone, including us in the long term,” he said in February at the Munich Security Conference. The tech chiefs’ moves are strategic. Given the widespread impact of the EU’s landmark General Data Protection Regulation, they want to be seen as cooperative as the bloc crafts new legislation.

The regulatory guardrails that Vestager sets on AI, illegal content, and more won’t be designed to absorb companies’ trust problems but rather to hold them to account. In her view, it’s a joint responsibility belonging to regulators and platforms, she said in an interview with Bloomberg earlier this year. “I don’t think that one can go without the other.”


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