European Commission proposes "first ever legal framework on AI"

Justin Hendrix / Apr 21, 2021

The European Commission has released its anticipated proposal to regulate the use of artificial intelligence (AI) technology. Noting that "the socio-economic benefits of AI can also bring about new risks or negative consequences for individuals or the society," the report is the result of multiple years of effort in the European Council and European Parliament to consider ethical and regulatory principles for AI.

The proposed regulation established uses cases that are prohibited, and differentiates uses between unacceptable risk, high risk, and low or minimal risk.

The prohibitions covers practices that have a significant potential to manipulate persons through subliminal techniques beyond their consciousness or exploit vulnerabilities of specific vulnerable groups such as children or persons with disabilities in order to materially distort their behavior in a manner that is likely to cause them or another person psychological or physical harm. Other manipulative or exploitative practices affecting adults that might be facilitated by AI systems could be covered by the existing data protection, consumer protection and digital service legislation that guarantee that natural persons are properly informed and have free choice not to be subject to profiling or other practices that might affect their behavior. The proposal also prohibits AI-based social scoring for general purposes done by public authorities. Finally, the use of ‘real time’ remote biometric identification systems in publicly accessible spaces for the purpose of law enforcement is also prohibited unless certain limited exceptions apply.


Dr. Kate Crawford, a scholar of the social and political implications of AI, pointed out some limitations of the proposal. She noted on Twitter that "the ban on police using remote biometric surveillance is riddled with gaps, and is weaker since earlier drafts." As proposed, the ban would only cover real time uses, and so it "may not cover police using Clearview AI, or getting Ring footage after the fact," for instance.

Whatever its limitations, the regulations proposed would have significant implications for applications of the technology, and will likely be opposed by many in industry. "The proposals will force vendors to fundamentally rethink how AI is procured and designed," Herbert Swaniker, a technology expert at the law firm Clifford Chance told the BBC.

“It’s going to make it prohibitively expensive or even technologically infeasible to build AI in Europe,” Benjamin Mueller, a policy analyst at "tech-aligned" think tank Center for Data Innovation, told the Wall Street Journal. “The U.S. and China are going to look on with amusement as the EU kneecaps its own startups.”

The proposed regulation will now go through a process of review and amendment that will likely take at least years before it becomes law.


Justin Hendrix
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & ...