Tuesday

18th Feb 2020

Investigation

'Redacted' - what Google and Microsoft told Mogherini on AI

  • EU high representative Federica Mogherini on 6 June 2018, the day she chaired the first meeting of the Global Tech Panel (Photo: European Commission)

There is no secret about who is a member of the Global Tech Panel, an informal advisory group set up by the EU's highest-ranking diplomat, Federica Mogherini.

Nicklas Lundblad, Google's vice-president in charge of government relations in Europe, is a member. So is Brad Smith, president and chief legal officer for Microsoft.

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  • The EEAS has released Mogherini's letters to the members of the Global Tech Panel - but heavily redacted them (Photo: EUobserver)

Yet, what these senior employees of two of the US' biggest technology companies have actually told Mogherini is unknown.

The European Union External Action Service (EEAS) – the EU's diplomatic service, which Mogherini heads – said in September that the panel was "set to feed into" a new EU strategy on artificial intelligence (AI).

The AI plan is scheduled to be unveiled on Friday (7 November).

But documents released by the EEAS at the request of EUobserver provide little concrete clues as to how the tech panel has contributed to the AI strategy.

No minutes exist of the two meetings of the Global Tech Panel held so far.

The EEAS released four letters Mogherini sent to the panel members - one before and one after each meeting.

One dated 26 June 2018, written after the first meeting, said that Mogherini was "ready to take the policy recommendations forward at my level in the EU".

However, it is unclear which policy recommendations were made. The letter has been heavily redacted.

Similar redaction took place with a letter dated 16 October 2018, sent by Mogherini after the panel's second meeting.

"I would like us to move forward [REDACTED] on artificial intelligence and lethal autonomous weapons systems," Mogherini wrote.

EUobserver asked Mogherini's spokeswoman, Maja Kocijancic, to explain how the Global Tech Panel has "fed into" the EU's new AI strategy.

"The only way the Global Tech Panel has contributed is indirectly through the high representative/vice president [Mogherini], who may choose to take into account advice that she receives for internal use as part of her deliberations about forthcoming policy decisions," said Kocijancic.

She did not say whether Mogherini has actually chosen to take some of the panel's advice into account, merely that she could.

The EEAS accompanied the released documents with an explanation for the redactions and the lack of formal minutes.

"Some of the participants are leaders from important tech companies, the world of investment and civil society and their participation was premised on unconditional confidentiality," wrote the EEAS civil servant replying to the access to documents request.

"The public release of parts of these letters, which reveal the personal opinions of the participants, would therefore breach the confidentiality rule under which the Global Tech Panel meetings take place," he added.

Ombudsman involved

EUobserver has asked the European Ombudsman to investigate whether the EEAS was correct to decide not to produce any minutes, and whether the redactions were legitimate.

The Ombudsman has previously said that minutes of meetings should be made public for "advisory groups that influence important policy areas" - even if they are not formal expert groups.

Another part of Mogherini's letter appears to hint that the tech panel influences policy areas.

"Politics needs technology to explore new opportunities and prevent potential threats, and technology needs diplomacy so that your expertise can shape good laws and diplomacy can help pave the way for progress," Mogherini wrote to panel members.

The Global Tech Panel reportedly focuses on four themes: regulation of lethal autonomous weapons systems; boosting digital jobs and skills; ethics of applied machine learning in surveillance, justice and security; and cyber security.

No NGOs?

Most of the 14 members work for technology corporations, including also DeepMind, Nokia, and Spotify.

At the first meeting, John Frank replaced his Microsoft colleague Brad Smith. Frank is Microsoft's top lobbyist in Brussels.

In October, five MEPs from four political groups asked Mogherini to expand the group by inviting a representative of non-governmental organisation that is a member of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.

They also asked her to include "representatives of academia", recommending someone from the International Panel on the Regulation of Autonomous Weapons (iPRAW).

The panel already has Tom Fletcher, visiting professor at New York University Abu Dhabi, as its member.

Fletcher told EUobserver in October that there was plenty of space at the two meetings he attended for the "non-corporate" view.

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

The MEPs who asked for additional members did not receive a clear answer from Mogherini.

Mogherini wrote that the panel would "continue to build on the contributions from, inter alia, the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots and iPRAW", but neglected to answer whether she would invite new members to the tech panel.

Spokeswoman Kocijancic also did not give a clear answer.

"The Global Tech Panel is not conceived as a closed group. For example, representatives of the United Nations were invited for the 25 September meeting in New York. The Global Tech Panel is open to new members, upon invitation by the High Representative," Kocijancic told EUobserver - evading the question about whether new members will be invited.

Conflict of interest, or coincidence?

Amel Karboul, another member of the Global Tech Panel, told EUobserver in a phone interview that the panel members who work for big tech companies did not use the panel to lobby on behalf of their corporations.

Karboul, a professional speaker, former consultant and former minister of tourism in Tunisia, said the conversation behind closed-doors offered the opportunity for a "safe space" to talk.

"Putting people under the spotlight from day one may feel kind of uncomfortable," Karboul added, stressing the group does not have "a decision-making or a formal role".

Nevertheless, in September the EEAS said that the panel's discussions had led to a "concrete pilot project to link tech leaders, educators and governments to help build a 'digital generation' in Tunisia".

This raises a conflict of interest question, given that Karboul is a former member of the Tunisian government (2014-2015) and the panel has no other members that have ties to a country in the region - was it just a coincidence that of all the possible countries Tunisia was chosen?

Karboul said the implementation of the project was in the hands of the EU, and said that objective criteria led to the decision for Tunisia.

"I'm originally from Tunisia but I didn't push for it," she said.

"I live in London and I have a global role at the moment. I don't live in Tunisia and I don't work for the Tunisian government," Karboul added.

The EEAS spokeswoman said that the EU's delegation in Tunis was "coordinating practical efforts in cooperation with the Global Tech Panel members themselves, based on their outreach to their respective contact networks".

There was no new budget assigned to the project.

"For the moment, the initiative is being taken forward within existing EU human and financial resources," she said.

The EEAS spokeswoman said that no new meeting of the Global Tech Panel has been scheduled yet.

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