Civil society organizations were barred from participating in the first international convention on artificial intelligence due to a US effort to keep nations’ stances secret.
The Committee on Artificial Intelligence (CoE) of the Council of Europe has been entrusted with creating an artificial intelligence treaty that focuses on human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.
The Strasbourg-based group has 46 members, including the EU27, the United Kingdom, Turkey, and Ukraine — Russia was just expelled. The United States, Canada, Mexico, and Israel are observer nations that are not obligated by the organization but can opt to ratify treaties such as the one on artificial intelligence.
The United States suggested outsourcing the task to a drafting group comprised of all nations that potentially sign the treaty at the committee’s last plenary session in November, basically a plenary session without the civil society organizations.
The American delegate expressly stated that he did not want foreign officials to know publicly about his negotiation stance, citing the Second Protocol to the Cybercrime Convention as precedent.
One aspect that Washington may not want to make public is that it has lobbied to limit the scope of the AI pact to only governmental enterprises, excluding the private sector, in which American firms are world leaders.
Following the proposal from the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada voiced their support for the drafting group. However, because the motion in plenary was not accepted by agreement, delegates thought it was one of several raised throughout the discussion.
The Council of Europe Secretariat, on the other hand, documented the US proposal in the minutes as though a decision had been reached. According to sources who spoke to EURACTIV on the condition of anonymity, the US put pressure on the secretariat since the institution had a diplomatic interest in the US signing its pact.
The US Mission to the European Union declined to comment on EURACTIV’s request for comment.
This attempt to make a conclusion without adequate debate was not overlooked. Several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as AlgorithmWatch, Fair Trials, Homo Digitalis, and the Conference of International Non-Governmental Organizations (CINGO) protested their exclusion from the drafting process.
“This decision defies the Council of Europe’s best practice examples, historical experience in the development of the 108+ Convention, and the Council of Europe’s own criteria on public engagement in political decision-making,” an email obtained by EURACTIV says.
Several nations, including Turkey, Poland, Slovenia, Austria, and Japan, seized the floor during the plenary session on Tuesday, 10 January, and advocated for the inclusion of NGOs in the working methods discussion.
As a result, EU nations gathered behind closed doors with the European Commission on Wednesday, where national representatives were divided on the issue. At that moment, the Commission considered requesting a postponement until a consensus could be established.
The action was regarded as an attempt to postpone the discussion even longer. The EU requirement, as EURACTIV revealed in October, is in accordance with the future AI regulation. As a result, the Commission is willing to postpone the discussions until the co-legislators reach an agreement on the AI Regulation.
As a result, during the next day’s plenary session, it was agreed that only possible Convention parties would be included in the drafting committee, excluding even Council of Europe groups having participatory status.
To avoid disclosing the particular positions of the countries, the elaboration and first debate will now take place behind closed doors. The draft is subsequently sent to non-governmental organizations, who have the chance to reply in writing or vocally during the following plenary session.
However, civil society organizations are concerned that their participation may be overlooked at this point. These worries are exacerbated by the fact that these submissions will be discussed behind closed doors before proceeding to the next step.
Another issue is a lack of openness, as there is no statement of which countries recommended certain revisions. Furthermore, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) will not be allowed to access the final document until it is submitted to the Council of Europe’s Plenary Assembly and Council of Ministers.
The drafting committee started its work with the conclusions chapter, a fairly unusual portion of the document but less problematic than other parts, in which the participating nations are divided on whether AI systems developed for national security and the Access to legal remedies should be excluded.