Tech & Rights

Packed With Loopholes: Why the AI Act Fails to Protect Civic Space and the Rule of Law

The AI Act fails to effectively protect the rule of law and civic space. Liberties, European Center for Not-For-Profit Law (ECNL) and European Civic Forum (ECF) gives our analysis of its shortcomings.

by Eva Simon, Jonathan Day, Karolina Iwańska (ECNL), Kerttu Willamo (ECF)

The unaccountable and opaque use of Artificial Intelligence (AI), especially by public authorities, can undermine civic space and the rule of law. In the European Union, we have already witnessed AI-driven technologies being used to surveil activists, assess whether airline passengers pose a terrorism risk or appoint judges to court cases. The fundamental rights framework as well as rule of law standards require that robust safeguards are in place to protect people and our societies from the negative impacts of AI.

For this reason, the European Centre for Not-for-Profit Law (ECNL), Liberties and the European Civic Forum (ECF) closely monitored and contributed to the discussions on the EU’s Artificial Intelligence Act (AI Act), first proposed in 2021. From the beginning, we advocated for strong protections for fundamental rights and civic space and called on European policymakers to ensure that the AI Act is fully coherent with rule of law standards.

The European Parliament approved the AI Act on 13 March 2024, thus marking the end of a three-year-long legislative process. Yet to come are guidelines and delegated acts to clarify the often vague requirements. In this article, we take stock of the extent to which fundamental rights, civic space and the rule of law will be safeguarded and provide an analysis of key AI Act provisions.

Far from a golden standard for a rights-based AI regulation

Our overall assessment is that the AI Act fails to effectively protect the rule of law and civic space, instead prioritising industry interests, security services and law enforcement bodies. While the Act requires AI developers to maintain high standards for the technical development of AI systems (e.g. in terms of documentation or data quality), measures intended to protect fundamental rights, including key civic rights and freedoms, are insufficient to prevent abuses. They are riddled with far-reaching exceptions, lowering protection standards, especially in the area of law enforcement and migration.

The AI Act was negotiated and finalised in a rush, leaving significant gaps and legal uncertainty, which the European Commission will have to clarify in the next months and years by issuing delegated acts and guidelines. Regulating emerging technology requires flexibility, but the Act leaves too much to the discretion of the Commission, secondary legislation or voluntary codes of conduct. These could easily undermine the safeguards established by the AI Act, further eroding the fundamental rights and rule of law standards in the long term.

CSOs’ contributions will be necessary for a rights-based implementation of the AI Act

The AI Act will enter into effect in stages, with full application expected in 2026. The European Commission will develop guidance and delegated acts specifying various requirements for the implementation, including guidance on the interpretation of prohibitions, as well as a template for conducting fundamental rights impact assessments. It will be crucial for civil society to actively contribute to this process with their expertise and real-life examples. In the next months, we will publish a map of key opportunities where these contributions can be made. We also call on the European Commission and other bodies responsible for the implementation and enforcement of the AI Act to proactively facilitate civil society participation and to prioritise diverse voices including those of people affected by various AI systems, especially those belonging to marginalised groups.

5 flaws of the AI Act from the perspective of civic space and the rule of law

1. Gaps and loopholes can turn prohibitions into empty declarations

2. AI companies’ self-assessment of risks jeopardises fundamental rights protections

3. Standards for fundamental rights impact assessments are weak

4. The use of AI for national security purposes will be a rights-free zone

5. Civic participation in the implementation and enforcement is not guaranteed

The AI Act limitations showcase the need for a European Civil Dialogue Agreement

The legislative process surrounding the AI Act was marred by a significant lack of civil dialogue - the obligation of the EU institutions to engage in an open, transparent, and regular process with representative associations and civil society. To date, there is no legal framework regulating the European civil dialogue, although civil society has been calling for it in various contexts. Since the announcement of the AI Act, civil society has made great efforts to coordinate horizontally to feed into the process, engaging diverse organisations at the national and European levels. In the absence of clear guidelines on how civil society input should be included ahead of the drafting of EU laws and policies, the framework proposed by the European Commission to address the widespread impact of AI technologies on society and fundamental rights was flawed. Throughout the preparatory and political stages, the process remained opaque, with limited transparency regarding decision-making and little opportunity for input from groups representing a rights-based approach, particularly in the Council and during trilogue negotiations. This absence of inclusivity raises concerns about the adopted text’s impact on society at large. It not only undermines people’s trust in the legislative process and the democratic legitimacy of the AI Act but also hampers its key objective to guarantee the safety and fundamental rights of all.

However, in contrast to public interest and fundamental rights advocacy groups, market and for-profit lobbyists and representatives of law enforcement authorities and security services had great influence in the legislative process of the AI Act. This imbalanced representation favoured commercial interests and the narrative of external security threats over the broader societal impacts of AI.

Read our analysis in full here.

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