Europeans have low trust in technology and this might hamper the uptake of emerging technologies, the European Commission’s Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager has warned.
“The development of digital technology holds the key to a large degree of our prosperity and competitiveness. That will not happen if we do not trust the technology. This is why our European approach to digitisation puts people first,” the EU digital chief said at the first EURACTIV-GIGAEurope Digital Debate on 21 June.
The Danish policymaker points to four pillars to create trust in the digital transition.
First, transparency about how technology works, notably in relation to automated decision-making. Second, Europeans need skills and understanding to take the technology into their hands. Third, a solid and reliable infrastructure. Fourth, a free and safe online environment where users can remain in control.
In December, the Commission put forth the Digital Services Act (DSA), a key legislative proposal to regulate online content and services, which introduces new transparency measures.
It requires platforms to explain how their algorithms work and obliges them to take measures to protect users from illegal and harmful content without affecting the freedom of speech. When removing content, online platforms will also have to explain the reasoning behind their decision.
“We see platforms as black boxes powered by sophisticated algorithms that get to choose what we see of the world that we live in. Or maybe more importantly what we don’t see. To gain control over digital technologies, we must first understand them,” Vestager explained.
Similarly, a draft proposal of the Artificial Intelligence Act also obliges organisations that use AI systems with potential risks for fundamental rights or physical safety to be transparent on how these systems work.
David Stevens, president of the Belgian Data Protection Authority, who spoke at the same event, pointed to the growing complexity and a general lack of understanding of how digital technologies work, warning that a sense of powerlessness might foster distrust.
Similarly, if the purpose of digital legislation is to empower the citizens, Stevens said, it needs to be simple and easy to understand. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is an example of a solid legal framework that in principle should empowered users to regain control over their personal data.
However, Vestager acknowledged that “many find that a bit of fiction because they don’t really know how to do this. The more one can enable people to feel in control, the more trust will be built.”
Joakim Reiter, chief corporate affairs officer at Vodafone Group, noted the need to involve all actors in stakeholder dialogue.
For Reiter, the development of digital infrastructure is a case in point where public authorities are underestimating the problem and should be more willing to listen to private actors, as only 40% of European households have access to high capacity networks at the moment.
Reaching the entire EU territory requires a massive mobilisation of resources, and a recent study on national recovery plans financed by Vodafone points to a still very significant investment gap.
“There needs to be a little bit of a reset, we need to come together and discuss what are the real drivers of this large and growing investment gap in Europe, that we are now not going to solve through the EU reconstruction funds,” Reiter said.
The industry, according to Manuel Kohnstamm, senior vice president at Liberty Global, a multinational telecoms company, has a “collective responsibility to ensure that high-quality and reliable gigabit networks, with full transparency around the use of data”.
EU lawmaker Brando Benifei pointed out that while the COVID crisis has indeed accelerated the digital transformation, it also brought an exponential increase in consumer scams, disinformation initiatives and cyber-attacks. For the Italian MEP, failing to manage these risks would undoubtedly undermine trust in the digital transition.
Benifei, who is the lead negotiator on the AI Act in the European Parliament, considers that in managing the risk related to AI applications, the regulation needs to strike a balance between the self-assessment of the developers and the ex-ante control of public authorities.
Lorena Boix Alonso, Director for Digital Society, Trust & Cybersecurity at the European Commission, stressed that for technologies to be easily trusted, they need to be safe by design. She pointed to the digital COVID certificate and the electronic ID as good examples.
On the other side of that bargain, Vestager noted, “platforms must always also play their part. They must contribute to a safe online environment for all users.” Online marketplaces are a significant example as, under the proposed DSA, they will have to check the identity of online sellers.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]