As artificial intelligence (AI) systems become increasingly integrated into various aspects of society, concerns about their risks and potential harm to fundamental rights are rising. However, the AI revolution, primarily driven by Big Tech companies, is facing resistance through lobbying efforts to thwart regulations designed to protect the public.
Real-world consequences of biased algorithms
The social impact of AI is not a distant future scenario but a current reality. Examples abound, from the Netherlands and the United Kingdom to Australia, where biased algorithms have wrongly accused thousands of individuals of defrauding social security benefits. The consequences have been disastrous, particularly for those from low-income households and migrant backgrounds, leading to financial debt, homelessness, and mental health issues.
Recently, the spotlight has been on the most advanced AI systems known as ‘foundation models,’ exemplified by ChatGPT. These complex systems can serve various purposes but often behave unpredictably, even to their developers. Technology giants like Google and Microsoft primarily develop them due to the enormous scale and resources required. These companies maintain near-monopolies in the AI sector and have invested billions in partnerships with startups, reinforcing their dominance.
Ethical concerns and diminishing ethics teams
Alarmingly, despite their influence, many of these tech giants have recently disbanded or downsized their ethics teams. Some of these teams had raised concerns about the dangers associated with the AI systems they were developing. This raises questions about the ethical considerations within the AI industry.
Recognizing the potential risks posed by foundation models, the European Parliament took steps in the spring to impose certain obligations on companies involved in their development. These obligations essentially constitute a duty of due diligence. Companies must demonstrate that they have taken all necessary measures to mitigate risks to fundamental rights, ensure the quality of training data, and minimize the environmental impact associated with data centers’ energy and water consumption.
Big tech’s lobbying efforts
While tech companies publicly advocate for AI regulation, behind the scenes, they vehemently resist any form of regulation concerning foundation models. Research by Corporate Europe Observatory reveals that Big Tech has engaged in extensive lobbying to influence the regulatory landscape. In the current year, 66% of meetings with members of the European Parliament on AI have involved corporate interests, up from 56% from 2019 to 2022.
Upon learning of the European Parliament’s intention to regulate foundation models, Big Tech swiftly redirected its lobbying efforts toward the European Commission and EU member states. This year, 86% of high-level commission officials’ meetings related to AI involved industry representatives. Chief executives from Google, OpenAI, and Microsoft have personally engaged with European policy-makers at the highest levels.
Support from unexpected sources
Surprisingly, Big Tech also found support from European AI startups Mistral AI and Aleph Alpha, which exerted pressure on their respective national governments (France and Germany). Mistral AI established a lobbying office in Brussels, led by former French Secretary of state for digital transition, Cédric O, known for his influence with French President Emmanuel Macron.
The opposition from tech giants and some member states has thrown a wrench into the ‘trilogue’ negotiations among EU institutions. Even when an agreement is reached, significant decisions will remain to be made during implementation, leaving room for Big Tech to continue influencing the process.
The influence wielded by Big Tech in the regulatory arena poses a critical question: Has Big Tech become too formidable to regulate effectively? With its lobbying prowess and privileged access to power, it has often succeeded in obstructing regulations that could have curtailed its contentious business practices. Just as Big Tobacco faced exclusion from lobbying public health officials due to years of manipulative tactics, there is a growing call to restrict Big Tech’s lobbying efforts when public interests are at stake.