Regulation

Editorial: Facebook excluding the EU from AI advancement heralds a trend

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EU regulations have forced Facebook to exclude citizens of member states from its new AI-powered suicide prevention tool, and it heralds a worrying trend.

Facebook’s new suicide prevention tool aims to use pattern recognition to detect posts or live videos where someone might be expressing thoughts of suicide, and to help respond to reports faster.

In a post announcing the feature, Facebook wrote: “We are starting to roll out artificial intelligence outside the US to help identify when someone might be expressing thoughts of suicide, including on Facebook Live. This will eventually be available worldwide, except the EU.”

EU data protection regulations

Facebook’s notable lack of support for its latest AI advancement in EU member countries is likely due to strict data protection regulations.

In recent months, I’ve spoken to lawyers, executives from leading companies, and even concerned members of the European Parliament itself about the EU’s stringent regulations stifling innovation across member states.

Julia Reda, an MEP, says: “When we’re trying to regulate the likes of Google, how do we ensure that we’re not also setting in stone that any European competitor that might be growing at the moment would never emerge?”

My discussions highlighted the fear that European businesses will struggle without the data their international counterparts have access to, and startups may look to non-EU countries to set up their operations.

However, the situation has taken a more serious turn with the potential for loss of life. Beyond the inability to launch potentially life-saving features like Facebook’s suicide prevention, the regulations will slow innovation in fields benefiting from AI such as healthcare.

We often cover medical developments on AI News, and most of these advancements rely on data collection to improve machine learning models. GDPR puts significant restrictions on how, when, and why firms can collect and use this data — which simply do not exist to such an extent anywhere else in the world.

“You’ve got your Silicon Valley startup that can access large amounts of money from investors, access specialist knowledge in the field, and will not be fighting with one arm tied behind its back like a competitor in Europe,” comments Peter Wright, Solicitor and Managing Director of Digital Law UK. “Very often we hear ‘Where are the European Googles and Facebooks?’ Well, it’s because of barriers like this which stop organisations like that being possible to grow and develop.”

The issue stems from austere EU data protection regulations being unsuitable for today’s world. There’s little debate against the need to safeguard data, and penalise where this has been insufficient, but even companies with a history of protecting their users are concerned about the extent of this legislation.

“We deal with a very large amount of customer data at F-Secure and I don’t go a working day without hearing a GDPR discussion around me,” comments Sean Sullivan, Security Advisor at Finnish cyber security company F-Secure. “It’s a huge effort, and many people are involved within my part of the organisation.”

“And not just at the legal level; we have ‘data people’ working with our product developers on our software architecture. We’ve always been a privacy focused company, but the last year has been a whole new level in my experience.”

The penalties for non-compliance with GDPR are severe and could devastate a company. Startups in particular, especially in areas such as AI, will struggle from being unable to collect anywhere near as much data as current leaders such as Google hold. However, that doesn’t mean established companies have it easy.

“Fortunately, we have the people we need. I imagine Facebook is still in the position of needing to find California-based GDPR experts who can work with the local developer teams,” explains Sullivan. “I’m confident it has people in Europe who are working on the high level issues, but I doubt that all of the product teams will be able to find the needed resources to be confident of GDPR compliance.”

“There will be more tech innovations that won’t be rolled out in the EU. Hopefully not for long, but at least for the near future.”

With its billions of users, there’s a good chance everyone has friends and family who use Facebook. I’m certain if anyone expresses suicidal thoughts on the platform we’d all want them to receive help as soon as possible.

For many consumers, this situation will be the first to bring awareness to the negative impacts of the EU’s strict data regulations. For businesses, this serves as yet another example.

If you’re having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, please find a list of international helplines here.

What are your thoughts on the EU’s data protection regulations? Let us know in the comments.

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