Britain eyes removing EU’s human review of AI decisions

Data protection updates

The government will put itself on a collision course with data privacy campaigners and the EU on Friday when it suggests that the right to have a human review of some decisions made by computer algorithms could be removed in the UK.

The idea is part of broad-based plans for a big overhaul of the UK data regime after Brexit which ministers say will boost innovation, and deliver what Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, has called a “data dividend” for the UK economy.

The step would mean rewriting or deleting Article 22 of the EU data protection regulation which the UK absorbed on to its statute book during Brexit but is now looking to streamline as part of post-Brexit economic reforms.

Removing Article 22 has been a goal of pro-Brexit campaigners as the UK tries to become a world leader in the use of artificial intelligence, but is likely to alarm privacy campaigners when the government launches a 10-week consultation on Friday morning.

Two people familiar with the contents of the consultation document said the government had raised the question of whether Article 22 should either be removed or better defined as part of the UK’s new data regime.

Article 22 guarantees that people can seek a human review of an algorithmic decision, such as an online decision to award a loan, or a recruitment aptitude test which uses algorithms to automatically filter candidates.

In May, a government task force set up to look for deregulatory dividends from Brexit, led by the leading Brexiter Iain Duncan Smith, argued that Article 22 should be removed because it made it “burdensome, costly and impractical” for organisations to use AI to automate routine processes.

Conceding that removing Article 22 might be too “radical”, it argued that “at a minimum” it should be reformed to permit “automated decision-making for machine learning” and to “remove the human review of algorithmic decisions required by GDPR”, to be replaced with “a legitimate or public interest test”.

The consultation document to be published by the culture department will make explicit reference to Duncan Smith’s Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform (TIGRR), according to the people who had seen the draft.

Whitehall officials said that it was important to examine whether Article 22 was keeping pace with the evolution of a data-driven economy and society, and that the government was not making hard proposals at this stage.

In a statement announcing the consultation, Dowden said the UK would use the freedoms delivered by Brexit to create a “world leading” data regime that was based on “common sense, not box-ticking”.

“These reforms will keep people’s data safe and secure, while ushering in a new golden age of growth and innovation right across the UK, as we build back better from the pandemic,” he added. 

However, a decision to remove Article 22 would contrast sharply with those proposed by other authorities around the world, which aim to give citizens more control over algorithmic decisions. 

In April, the EU laid out its own plans for how to regulate artificial intelligence, underlining the need for European values and fundamental rights in implementing algorithms. 

In particular, it requires that anyone deploying “high-risk” applications, in areas such as recruitment, will have to list them in a national register, notify people on whom they are being used, and provide transparency on how the algorithms made their decisions. 

Meanwhile, draft AI guidelines issued by the Chinese government last month emphasised that people should be allowed to turn off algorithms if necessary. 

In February, the European Commission granted the UK a data-sharing agreement, but has warned that it will be “watching closely” to see if the UK’s internet reforms breach EU standards of data privacy.

EU officials said that the decision, which is to be reviewed every four years, could be rescinded at any time. “We knew this was to be expected, hence we included these unusual safeguards,” said one EU official who was involved in the drafting of the decision.

Business groups said they would study the UK government proposals carefully, with the consultation forming the basis of new legislation next year.

TechUK, the industry lobby group, said the consultation included many “sensible ideas” and was rooted firmly in the GDPR framework.

However, the group cautioned that both businesses and civil society groups “will want to take a close look at the proposed reforms to privacy management frameworks, the grounds for data processing and international data transfers”.

William Bain, the head of trade policy at the British Chambers of Commerce, said it was right to assess how algorithms were regulated, but that any reforms must not endanger the UK’s data agreement with the EU.

“This is the key foundation of our trade and data-processing relationship with businesses and customers in the EU. The UK government’s new data hub strategy must build upon that, in its free trade and digital trade agreements with new partners, and not weaken it,” he added. 

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