Trilogue negotiations for the closely watched EU Artificial Intelligence Act hit an unexpected roadblock last week after two EU member states said they wanted the proposed regulatory approach for foundation models retracted, which reportedly led European Parliament representatives to end the meeting early.
"If you had interviewed me last Friday as we in Parliament left the room, I would have said there was maybe 0% or 10% chance that it would have passed because it really was not looking good," Kai Zenner, digital policy advisor for German MEP Axel Voss, said in a one-on-one interview Wednesday at the IAPP Data Protection Congress in Brussels.
France and Germany led the push-back efforts, arguing homegrown generative AI companies, like French startup Mistral, would suffer under the proposed act. Since then, according to Euractiv, the Spanish presidency under the EU Council "is mediating directly with the concerned countries on a possible solution acceptable to the European Parliament."
For AI Act co-rapporteur Dragos Tudorache, who spoke along with fellow co-rapportuer Brando Benifei on the negotiations at DPC, the issue is one of three "buckets" of sticking points in the AI Act trilogues.
The three main sticking points
Before last Friday's fallout, one major obstacle had been law enforcement's use of remote biometric identification in public spaces. Under the draft AI Act, such monitoring would be considered unacceptable risk, aside from narrow exceptions. Member states, however, are pushing for more exceptions and, in a one-one-one interview with the IAPP, Tudorache said Parliament's position in the negotiations remains status quo.
Benifei said Parliament "can't concede too much on law enforcement," saying they must ensure democracy isn't stifled by a growing surveillance state.
Another sticking point involves governance of the regulation: how to balance enforcement at the member-state levels and the more centralized EU level. Tudorache said this was a "less heated" negotiation at the moment, but added, "You can't have enforcement just at the national level, you need enforcement at the EU level," particularly with large platforms.
The debates come as some criticize the efficiency of the EU General Data Protection Regulation's so-called one-stop-shop mechanism, which policymakers are trying to learn from.
Regarding governance and the tight timeline the institutions have to finalize a political solution, Benifei floated the idea of not placing all details in the text and perhaps having the proposed EU-level AI Office play a role in developing more specifics down the line.
For Tudorache, the negotiations around foundation models remains the "most difficult" issue. "There are strong forces at play here," he said during a panel discussion Wednesday. "We don't want to under regulate or over regulate foundation models," he added.
The significance of 6 December
Both Tudorache and Zenner separately said the sticking points in the negotiations are interrelated, and solutions will not develop in chronological order. "These three clusters are interlinked," Tudorache said, adding that they must be solved in parallel.
It is now clear 6 Dec. will be a significant day for negotiations, as it is the day of the year's final trilogue. In the one-on-one interview in Brussels, Tudorache said, indeed, the 6 Dec. meetings will be the real test for the fate of the EU Act. Though he remains optimistic, the institutions will either solve the three main sticking points that day, or a longer road will lie ahead.
"It will be a pivotal moment," Tudorache said, "because we've done a lot of work from the last trilogue to now to work scenarios for each of the clusters I've discussed so that we have enough to negotiate with and, again, we've reserved the whole day, and if need be, the whole night."
Tudorache said he hopes the EU Council is also preparing scenarios with which to negotiate. "We look at the sixth of December as the last date," he said.
The notion paralleled comments from Benifei at DPC.
"We feel the urge to come to an agreement," Benifei said, noting the EU is paying attention to moves across the globe to address AI regulation, including the U.S. executive order, the U.K.'s safety summit, the G7 code of conduct and more. "We want to be able to put our chip on the table on how we regulate and protect fundamental rights," he said.
For Zenner, after last week's unexpected standstill, he's back to feeling that the AI Act has a 50-50% chance of passage in time to finalize it ahead of next year's parliamentary elections and changes in the European Commission. As noted in reports from the IAPP AI Governance Global in Boston earlier this month, the timeline is already tight without any major roadblocks.
"When there's a will there's a way," Tudorache said, "and I'm convinced we'll find a way."
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