EU adopts declaration on digital rights and principles

On December 15th, 2022, the European Union adopted an interinstitutional declaration on digital rights and principles that will guide the EU’s ambition to be “digitally sovereign in an open and interconnected world, and to pursue digital policies that empower people and businesses to seize a human centred, sustainable and more prosperous digital future”.

The outcome of the public consultation on digital principles, which took place from May 12th to September 6th 2021, revealed that most of the respondents promoted principles such as plurality, inclusivity, non-discrimination, openness, privacy, democracy and sustainability.

Drawing from the Commission’s communication ‘Digital compass 2030: a European way forward for the digital decade’ of March 9th 2021, the declaration focuses on six key areas: Putting people and their rights at the centre of the digital transformation; Supporting solidarity and inclusion; Ensuring freedom of choice online; Participation in digital life; Safety, security  and empowerment of individuals; and Promoting sustainability. Across these key areas 22 commitments are made. Interestingly, the declaration also proposes guidelines with regard to the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

As regards Artificial Intelligence more specifically, the declaration emphasises “the importance for people to keep their freedom of choice in interactions with algorithms and artificial intelligence systems”. Communication around the use of AI should therefore be transparent, in order that people are informed that they are not interacting with an actual human. Besides, such AI systems should be trained with suitable datasets so that they avoid any discrimination; they should not enable the pre-determination of people’s choices (especially regarding decisions that involve physical integrity or deprivation of liberty) and eventually they would have to provide adequate safeguards so that people’s fundamental rights are fully respected.

Despite the solemn character of the interinstitutional declaration, this text does not purport to exercise any legally binding role. While it may have been expected to be introduced as an ‘EU Charter of Fundamental Rights 2.0’, its ‘political nature’ is made explicit in the declaration itself. According to recital (5) of the declaration’s preamble: “The Declaration aims to explain shared political intentions” and to also serve “as a reference point for businesses and other relevant actors when developing and deploying new technologies”. This text must therefore be considered as a guideline, a white paper which provides detail about the strategy being fulfilled by the EU in the field of data and AI.

However, the declaration is also firmly connected to the expression of EU digital sovereignty as it provides a global model for the protection of rights and freedoms in the digital age. According to recital (6) of the declaration’s preamble, “The Union should promote the Declaration in its relations with other international organisations and third countries with the ambition that the principles serve as an inspiration for international partners to guide a digital transformation which puts people and their human rights at the centre throughout the world”.

Even if the human-centric vision of the EU with regard to the digital transformation is likely to be supported by EU’s like-minded partners, questions still remain about the impact this vision will have on commercial negotiations involving digital technologies and whether Member States and commercial partners will adhere to these values.

This significant issue of how to reconcile very different views on AI will be even more central when the AI Act, which is currently under review by the European Parliament, is adopted, since this situation is likely to create certain conflicts of law which will be difficult to settle.

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