Google and Microsoft disagree on EU’s proposed facial recognition ban

Hemani Sheth Mumbai | Updated on January 23, 2020

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Heads of technology giants hold opposite viewpoints on proposed moratorium

Technology giants Microsoft and Google have taken opposite views on the European Union’s (EU) proposed a temporary ban on facial recognition, with the leaders of the two companies expressing their respective opinions. The European Commission had drafted an 18-page white paper, laying out its plan for facial recognition technology regulation. This was leaked, and   published by EURACTIV.

EU’s plans for facial recognition tech

The EU white paper, apart from suggesting a five-year moratorium on public use of facial recognition, also featured other regulatory options for artificial intelligence (AI),  such as voluntary labelling, sectorial requirements for public administration and facial recognition, mandatory risk-based requirements for high-risk applications, safety, liability and governance, BBC reported.

Differing views of Microsoft and Google

Speaking at a conference organised by the think-tank Bruegel in Brussels, Google CEO Sundar Pichai expressed his concerns about technology being used for nefarious purposes, which may serve as a reason to impose the proposed moratorium, according to a Reuters report. “I think it is important that governments and regulations tackle it sooner rather than later and give a framework for it,” the report quoted Pichai as saying.  

Google later clarified its stand on the matter through an official statement. 

 “As Sundar said on Monday, we are supportive of AI regulation. Facial recognition is a very sensitive technology, and that’s why we have taken a cautious approach and don't offer it in a general-purpose API while we work through the policy and technical issues at stake. So, while we don't support a ban on this technology, we do encourage strong guardrails, particularly for public facial recognition, through regulations and other means. We recently published a framework for facial recognition to highlight key factors for consideration,” Google said. 

Google's  support is in line with his recent op-ed in the Financial Times, where the Google CEO called for increased regulations on AI, citing potential harms of the  technology. Pichai suggested that AI regulations be formed by weighing in the negative impact of the technology alongside its social opportunities. He also suggested that rules  be tailored for different sectors, giving the context of medical devices and self-driving cars.

Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith contradicted the ban, stating the problems had to be issued at micro levels. A ban is like “using a meat cleaver instead of a scalpel to solve potential problems”, he said. Smith also focussed on the benefits of facial recognition technology, citing the example of its use in finding missing children. It is the government’s responsibility to understand how technology is being used, identifying problem areas before crafting the rules and  considering an alternative if the technology is banned, he added.

Microsoft had  detailed its suggestions for the regulation of facial recognition in 2019 through an article published on its website. Its suggestions for framing regulations around facial recognition were focussed on increased transparency, third-party tests and comparisons of the government’s facial recognition software to avoid discrimination and increased security.


Regulation across Western countries

EU is proposing a stricter crackdown on abuse of facial recognition as compared to the US. The US government also recently published regulatory guidelines on AI to limit abuse and overreach by authorities, urging Europe to avoid an aggressive approach, reported Reuters.

A bipartisan group in the US Congress is already working on legislation to regulate the use of facial recognition by the private sector, the federal government and law enforcement, Venture Beat reported. Microsoft in July 2019 had announced that the company would undertake work to assess and develop additional principles to govern its facial recognition work.

Published on January 21, 2020

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