The European Commission unveils its strategy for Europe’s Digital Future, the use of Artificial Intelligence and a Data-Drive…

As digital technologies are profoundly transforming our world, the European Commission has set out a strategy to best meet the risks and challenges ahead and to put Europe in a position to be a trendsetter in the global debate. 

These ideas and actions are summarized in the Commission’s publication “Shaping Europe’s Digital Future”, presented on 19 February 2020.  In particular, the Commission will focus on three key objectives to ensure that Europe becomes a strong and independent digital player in its own right: (i) technology that works for people, (ii) a fair and competitive economy, and (iii) an open, democratic and sustainable society. 

To achieve these objectives, the Commission has set out several key actions for the next five years, including:

  • Publishing a White Paper on Artificial Intelligence setting out options for a legislative framework for trustworthy AI;
  • Communicating a European Data Strategy to make Europe a global leader in the data-agile economy;
  • Accelerating investments in Europe’s Gigabit connectivity, including an updated Action Plan on 5G and 6G;
  • Evaluating and reviewing the fitness of EU competition rules for the digital age, including the launch of a sector inquiry;
  • Increasing and harmonising the responsibilities of online platforms and ISPs and reinforcing the oversight over platforms’ content policies in the EU;
  • Launching initiatives to improve labour conditions of platform workers;
  • Publishing a media and audio-visual Action Plan to support digital transformation and competitiveness of the audio-visual and media sector;
  • Setting out a European cybersecurity strategy, including the establishment of a joint Cybersecurity Unit.

The Commission already took the first two steps and presented a White Paper on Artificial Intelligence and a Communication on Europe’s Data Strategy.

In its White Paper on Artificial Intelligence, the Commission presents policy options to enable a trustworthy development of AI.  These include creating a European regulatory framework that both promotes the uptake of AI and addresses the risks associated with certain uses of this new technology (e.g. safety issues, loss of privacy, limitations to the right of freedom of expression, discrimination, etc.). 

To this end, the Commission proposes to follow a twofold approach.  The existing provisions of EU law (e.g. ensuring consumer protection, protection of personal data, etc.) will continue to apply in relation to AI, although certain updates to that framework may be necessary to reflect the use of AI (e.g. liability under product safety legislation).  A new and specific regulatory framework for AI, on the other hand, should follow a risk-based approach and only apply to AI applications qualified as ‘high-risk’, in particular from the viewpoint of safety, consumer rights and fundamental rights.  For these high-risk AI applications, the following key requirements could be considered:

  • Requirements relating to the data set used to train AI systems;
  • Requirements regarding the keeping of records in relation to the programming of the algorithm, the data used, etc.;
  • Ensuring clear information as to the AI system’s capabilities and limitations;
  • Requirements ensuring that the AI systems are robust and behave reliably as intended;
  • Requirements ensuring appropriate involvement by human beings;
  • Specific requirements regarding the use of biometric data for remote identification purposes (e.g. facial recognition).

The Commission proposes to implement prior conformity assessments that would be mandatory for all economic operators addressed by these requirements, regardless of their place of establishment.  For AI applications that do not qualify as “high-risk” and that are not subject to the mandatory requirements, an option would be, in addition to applicable legislation, to establish a voluntary labelling scheme.

The Commission also published its “European strategy for data”, in which it outlines Europe’s strategy to enable the data economy for the coming five years.  In particular, the Commission aims to create a genuine single market for data where personal and non-personal data are secure, where businesses have easy access to an almost infinite amount of high-quality industrial data, and where rules for access to and use of data are fair, practical and clear. 

The Commission’s data strategy is based on these four pillars:

  • Establishing a cross-sectoral regulatory framework to facilitate the use of data and to provide incentives for horizontal data sharing across sectors.  This also includes making more high-quality public sector data available for re-use;
  • Investing in data-driven innovation and strengthening Europe’s data infrastructures, including competitive European cloud services;
  • Supporting individuals in enforcing their rights with regard to the use of the data they generate, and investing in skills and general data literacy;
  • Promoting the development of common European data spaces in strategic economic sectors and domains of public interest, which should lead to the availability of large pools of data (e.g. a Common European health data space, financial data space, energy data space, and Green Deal data space).

It is clear that the goals set out in the context of Europe’s Digital Future are very ambitious, including the aim for the EU to become a world leader in trustworthy AI and the most secure and dynamic data-agile economy in the world.  The Commission will undoubtedly face many challenges in developing a regulatory framework fit for Europe to reach these objectives, but the coming years in any event promise to be very exciting for everyone who is active in the digital economy sector.