US pushes to weaken international human rights treaty on use of AI software

The Council of Europe, of which the US is an observer, is drafting a treaty that will call on its member states to ensure that AI systems respect international obligations to protect human rights.

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The US government is lobbying Council of Europe members to weaken an international treaty on human rights and AI software by exempting private vendors from compliance.

Diplomats are meeting in Strasbourg, France, this week to create a final version of the treaty, which would require organizations using AI to respect human rights and adhere to democratic principles. But the US, a non-voting observer of the Council of Europe, appears to be close in its efforts to water down the treaty, Politico reported.

The US, with backing from the UK, a member state, and fellow observer states Canada and Japan, is seeking to exempt private companies from the latest draft of the treaty and have it focus only on government uses of AI. Other negotiators and critics of this plan fear this carve-out would limit the effectiveness of the treaty.

The European Union, the member states of which are also Council of Europe members, has warned that exempting private companies from the rules would be “diminishing its value and sending a wrong political message that human rights in the private field do not merit the same protection,” according to a February analysis obtained by Politico.

It’s unclear why the US government wants to water down the treaty when US President Joe Biden has pushed for similar objectives. In October, Biden issued an executive order focused on AI safety and privacy and called for an AI bill of rights, which would cover some of the same ground as the treaty does.

However, the US efforts to weaken the treaty have been happening for several months. In January, a group of technology rights organizations began circulating an open letter to the Council of Europe that calls on members to reject limits on the treaty.

The US and its allies want not only to exempt private companies from the treaty, but some negotiators also want to exempt government AI users from following the privacy, human rights, and other provisions when national security is implicated, said the letter, signed by more than 85 organizations and 25 individuals. Signatories include Access Now, AlgorithmWatch, Reporters Without Borders, and Wikimedia of Germany and Switzerland.

The exemption for private companies, including big tech, would “result in giving these companies a blank check rather than effectively protecting human rights, democracy, and the rule of law,” said the letter. “A hollowed-out convention will provide little meaningful protection to individuals who are increasingly subject to powerful AI systems prone to bias, human manipulation, and the destabilization of democratic institutions.”

The AI treaty calls for human review of AI decisions, prohibits discrimination by AIs, and requires organizations to inform customers or users when an AI is making decisions about them.

The Council of Europe, a human rights organization with 46 member states, has been working on the AI treaty for about three years.

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