The Progressive Post

Towards Sovereign AI: Europe´s greatest challenge?

Francesca Bria, Innovation economist and digital policy expert. Honorary professor, UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose and Board Member of the Italian Public Media broadcast RAI. Former President of the Italian national Innovation Fund.
30/11/2023

The European Union is in the middle of crucial negotiations over the Artificial Intelligence (AI) Act, whose outcome will signal whether the Act sets a new global standard for progressive AI regulation, with stringent rules on high-risk AI applications, mandatory transparency, and the protection of fundamental rights. Alternatively, there is a risk that the Act may yield to pressures from large AI corporations, reducing it to a mere voluntary code of conduct, which could exacerbate existing power disparities and the adverse effects of AI. 

The recent events at OpenAI, including the contentious firing and subsequent reinstatement of CEO Sam Altman, alongside potential mass employee resignations, underscore the industry’s unpredictability, volatility, and lack of mature governance forms. Moreover, OpenAI’s legal troubles over the unauthorized use of copyrighted material in AI model training, combined with inadequate safety measures and regulatory oversight, clearly shows the urgent need for comprehensive AI regulations. Such crucial developments should not be left to the discretion of commercial entities operating behind closed doors.

Along with the AI Act, regulations such as the Digital Market Act and the Digital Services Act aim to curb the dominance of major tech platforms, by promoting fair competition and consumer protection. Yet, merely regulating Big Tech’s power isn’t enough. Europe’s dependence on technology imports has sparked significant worries about its digital autonomy and economic security. As a response, Europe needs to cultivate its own technology sector and supportopen, sovereign, and independent solutions that align with European values and needs. The EU should bolster investments in research, innovation, and digital public infrastructures. By upholding ethical standards, applying strategic subsidies, and practicing smart procurement, Europe can establish itself as a leader in a technology landscape where innovation serves the public good. 

Historian Evgeny Morozov has warned that the trajectory of AI is primarily influenced by private corporations and driven by controversial ideologies that embody a neoliberal ethos, like “AGI” and “effective altruism”. This paradigm emphasizes market-driven solutions, technological determinism, and an individualistic, profit-oriented ethic. As an alternative, Europe should emphasize instead the need for a new social pact in today’s techno capitalism that not only addresses the immediate challenges of AI but also anticipates its long-term implications for employment, labor rights, creativity, education, and societal norms.

Imagine a future where AI agents intermediate all our digital interactions, as repositories of the entirety of human-generated knowledge. In this evolution of the Internet, it’s crucial that these platforms remain open and universally accessible, not a property of Silicon Valley’s tech giants. Given their widespread use, concentrated control over these platforms could significantly manipulate and shape public opinion and culture, and amplify biases, perpetuating disparities related to race, gender, healthcare, and class. Therefore, it’s essential for these AI systems to be managed as open digital commons, with a commitment to transparency, democratic accountability, and public supervision. 

Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter underscores the growing influence of tech moguls over key mass communication platforms. These platforms are increasingly taking over the roles traditionally played by democratic institutions and public media in facilitating political engagement and shaping public awareness. The underlying business model of these social networks, which revolves around exploiting and monetizing personal data, amplifies concerns about the spread of fake news, hate speech, and extremist ideologies. This development has sparked a critical debate in Europe about the need to establish its own social platforms subject to democratic oversight. Such platforms should be built on principles like open-source specifications, interoperability, and privacy-centric standards. This effort is envisioned to foster a digital public sphere that upholds values like pluralism, privacy, and freedom of expression, and is resistant to the manipulative tactics of populist movements, and the far-right trends. This is a critical political agenda ahead of the forthcoming European elections. 

Europe should develop a comprehensive strategy and allocate substantial funding, starting with a €10 billion EU Digital Sovereignty Fund, to establish digital public infrastructures and digital commons, as viable alternatives to the monopolistic models currently prevalent in digital platforms. This Fund would scale current smaller and fragmented national and EU initiatives and support the deployment of open AI models and applications, data spaces, open knowledge tools, privacy-preserving digital IDs, and digital payments. These tools are essential for creating public options for pan-European digital services and apps that effectively create open source and interoperable marketplaces in smart mobility, urban development, healthcare, citizens participation, education and culture designed to plug in local tax, labour, and licencing rules.

Across European cities, notable progress is being made in developing public digital infrastructures. During my time as Barcelona’s Chief Technology Officer, we initiated a movement to regain digital sovereignty, culminating in the creation of platforms for large scale citizen participation today used globally. In Hamburg, I spearheaded a project to create a universal data sharing framework. This approach entails the transfer of data from private companies to public authorities via urban data intermediaries, mandating data sharing clauses into public procurement contracts, and conditioning public subsidies on compliance with these obligations.

By focusing on digital citizenship, data sovereignty, privacy-preserving technologies, and algorithmic self-determination of workers and citizens, Europe can position itself as a leader in the digital society, one that places people and public interest at the forefront. Europe’s approach to technology should not be merely reactive to global trends in the tech industry. Instead, it should be proactive in carving out a distinct path in the digital age, presenting a compelling alternative to the tech dominance of the U.S. and China. This model prioritizes the role of technology to serve humanity, aligning with the United Nations’ goals of promoting and effectively governing digital public goods.  

The upcoming conference in Brussels will mobilize an alliance, including progressive political parties, labor unions, civil society organizations, academia, and public institutions across media, culture, and the arts, united in their commitment to shape a democratic digitization for Europe. This entails crafting a distinct political agenda tailored to our technological era, rather than solely focusing on regulating the current technological landscape. This approach represents a proactive step towards shaping a future where technologies fully align with democratic values, as an integral part of a broader societal effort at promoting social and environmental justice and reducing inequalities.

This article was originally published on Euractiv

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