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November 8, 2023

The King’s Speech ignores AI and sets up new government Big Tech battle

A law governing how security agencies can ask tech companies for information is set to be reformed.

By Matthew Gooding

Big Tech companies could be forced to inform the UK government before they roll out new security features under reforms to the Investigatory Powers Bill laid out in the King’s Speech.

King Charles delivered his speech to parliament on Tuesday. (Photo by UK Parliament/Flickr)

The speech, delivered by King Charles in parliament on Tuesday, contains the government’s legislative programme for the coming parliamentary year. It also included proposals around the use of driverless vehicles, but there are no plans for new laws pertaining to artificial intelligence, despite the UK hosting an international AI safety summit last week.

Investigatory Powers bill changes could put new demands on Big Tech platforms

Among the bills being put forward in the speech is the Investigatory Powers (Amendment) Act, which updates legislation introduced in 2016. Changes are being planned following a review of the law carried out this year by Lord Anderson.

The bill provides guidance on how law enforcement and security agencies can gather information and demand data from third parties. Among proposed amendments is a reform of the “notices regime”, which details the orders that agencies can impose on tech and telecoms companies in relation to data needed for investigations.

According to a government briefing document, this regime needs to be changed to “help the UK anticipate the risk to public safety posed by the rolling out of technology by multinational companies that preclude lawful access to data.” This could “reduce the risk of the most serious offences such as child sexual exploitation and abuse or terrorism”.

This could mean Whitehall officials being handed technical details of new systems ahead of release so that they are able to access user data if required.

As reported by Tech Monitor, the government has been making moves in recent months to gain more oversight of messages sent via tech platforms through the Online Safety Bill. The bill, which passed into law last month, could compel vendors to build back-door access for law enforcement into end-to-end encrypted messaging services. Ministers maintain that this could be helpful in stopping the spread of child sex abuse material, but critics say it poses a threat to privacy and cybersecurity.

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Following opposition from companies including WhatsApp, the government appeared to compromise on the issue by saying that it would not use the powers in the bill until a suitable technical solution is found that maintains security and privacy levels.

The King’s Speech is an AI-free zone

Elsewhere in the King’s Speech, the government confirmed it will press ahead with the Data Protection and Digital Information Act, the UK’s post-Brexit GDPR replacement. Its passage through parliament has been delayed for months after changes were made to the legislation last autumn. The Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill, which will help regulate Big Tech, also featured in the speech having been carried over from parliament’s last sitting.

The new legislation includes the Automated Vehicles Bill, which will set out a framework for driverless cars and commercial vehicles. The government has previously stated it wants autonomous vehicles on UK motorways by 2025.

However, there are no plans to bring forward laws to regulate AI. While this is no surprise given that the government’s stance is to take a light touch, pro-innovation approach, the Ada Lovelace Institute, which carries out research on AI, says statutory controls will be required to keep the technology in check.

Michael Birtwistle, associate director at the Ada Lovelace Institute, said: “The absence of any comprehensive legislative proposals on AI in the King’s Speech means the UK could end up being left behind the US, EU and other jurisdictions taking stronger action on AI governance.

“To properly deliver the protections we know the public wants, empower regulators and ensure adequate routes to redress, there can be no substitute for legislation.”

Birtwhistle said that while the government’s white paper on AI regulation set out a number of additional principles for UK regulators to apply to the uses of AI systems, these “are not being placed on a statutory footing, so regulators will have no legal obligation to consider them”.

He added: “The Data Protection and Digital Information Bill is now the sole legislative vehicle for influencing how AI is regulated in the UK. The government should look again at this bill and the white paper through the lens of AI safety and the commitments in the Bletchley Declaration

“Without effective legislation, the government’s current approach will not ensure that AI works for people and society.”

Read more: UK government approach to AI ‘could disadvantage workers’, Labour claims

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