Thursday

17th Oct 2019

Mogherini's tech experts talk more freely in secret

  • Federica Mogherini (l) with Borge Brende in 2016, when the latter was still Norwegian minister of foreign affairs. Brende now leads the World Economic Forum and participates in Mogherin's Global Tech Panel (Photo: European External Action Service)

The EU's foreign policy service has told EUobserver that no records existed of the meetings of the Global Tech Panel, which was set up by foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and discusses, among other things, how to deal with so-called killer robots.

But the panel members have received "summary letters" from Mogherini, which could also be regarded as records.

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  • MEPs want the Global Tech Panel to include members that are more critical of lethal autonomous weapons (Photo: European External Action Service)

The secrecy around the panel is likely to irk transparency campaigners, but one of its members said that it also helped open up the discussion.

The 14-member group was set up earlier this year, and met twice: in June in Brussels, and in September in New York.

This website had asked in an access to document request that the European External Action Service (EEAS) release all documents "including but not limited to notes, presentations, minutes, emails, member lists and attendance lists" of the panel.

In its response, the EEAS said that "there are no minutes nor reports of the meetings of the Global Tech Panel since the discussions take place in camera" - referring to jargon for a private meeting.

It said any other documents were available on the EEAS website.

However, the EEAS website referred to meetings only in the broadest of terms.

Tom Fletcher, a member of the panel, confirmed to EUobserver that he had not received any minutes, but did reveal that following each meeting Mogherini sends "one and a half page or so summarising our conclusions and who's doing what".

When asked about these letters, an EEAS spokeswoman repeated that there were no minutes or reports of the meetings.

"There are letters from [Mogherini] inviting members to the meetings and setting out proposed items for discussion, and follow-up letters," said the spokeswoman.

"While these letters are not public, the EEAS makes maximum information available on its dedicated webpage," she added.

"The Global Tech Panel members may produce working discussion documents or presentations to outline their ideas, but these are not the property of the EEAS," said the spokeswoman.

No rules are apparently broken, but a lack of public documents about the meetings does make it difficult for citizens to know what has been discussed.

The EEAS spokeswoman noted that the role of the panel was different from commission expert groups, for which stricter transparency rules exist.

She said the panel "does not aim to produce policy papers or otherwise contribute directly to the preparation or implementation of EU legislation, legislative proposals, policy initiatives or other delegated acts" - therefore exempting it from the expert group rules.

Panel member Fletcher, a former UK ambassador to Lebanon and now visiting professor at New York University Abu Dhabi, said the secrecy had its merits.

"If they were releasing public minutes of the meeting, then I think that would be a very different conversation," he said.

He is one of the few non-corporate voices on the panel, which include high officials from companies like Google's sister company DeepMind, Microsoft, Siemens, and Spotify.

"Imagine if you are there, if you work for Google DeepMind or for Microsoft, and you know it's all effectively on the record, then that is a very different conversation," said Fletcher.

"Everyone would then give their corporate view of whatever was happening. It's less of a problem for me, because I don't really have a corporate view, I'm just a private person on it".

The group is looking into how to regulate lethal autonomous weapons systems in respect of human rights and international law.

Last week, five MEPs from four political groups, who strongly oppose the weaponised use of artificial intelligence, sent a letter to Mogherini.

The letter was signed by Reinhard Buetikhofer (Greens), Bodil Valero (Greens), Norica Nicolai (Liberals), Ana Maria Gomes (Socialists & Democrats), and Fabio Massimo Castaldo (Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy).

They reminded Mogherini that a 566-strong majority of MEPs have recommended her to start global talks on a legal ban on lethal autonomous weapons.

In what can be seen as an indirect criticism of the current composition of the global tech panel, they asked Mogherini to include a representative from a civil society group that is part of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, as well as more academics.

However, Fletcher said that his fellow "non-corporates" had "a pretty strong voice" in the discussions.

"I don't feel that we are being drowned out at all by the corporates," he said.

Fletcher said that no new meeting had been scheduled yet. He expected "two or three more meetings" in the coming 12 to 15 months.

"These are busy, busy people," he noted.

"What you don't want is just something that ends up being something that meets every three months just because it feels it has to, like so much else in the international architecture," said Fletcher.

This is the second in a three-part series of articles on how the EU deals with artificial intelligence.

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