A new regulatory body created by the European Union promises to peer inside the black boxes that drive social media recommendations.
What’s new: The European Centre for Algorithmic Transparency (ECAT) will study the algorithms that identify, categorize, and rank information on social media sites and search engines.
How it works: ECAT is empowered to determine whether algorithms (AI and otherwise) comply with the European Union’s Digital Services Act, which aims to block online hate speech, certain types of targeted ads, and other objectionable content. The agency, which is not yet fully staffed, will have between 30 to 40 employees including specialist AI researchers. Its tasks fall into three major categories:
- Investigation: ECAT will evaluate the functioning of “black box” algorithms. It will analyze reports and audits conducted by companies legally required to submit reports to European regulators. It will establish procedures for independent researchers and regulators to gain access to data — the nature of which is unspecified — related to algorithms.
- Research: The agency will study the potential of recommendation algorithms to spread illegal content, infringe human rights, harm democratic processes, or harm user health. It will evaluate measures to mitigate existing risks and identify new ones as they emerge. It will also study long-term social impacts of algorithms and propose ways to make them more accountable and transparent.
- Community building: The agency aims to act as a hub for sharing information and best practices among researchers in academia, industry, civil service, and NGOs.
Behind the news: EU regulators are increasingly targeting AI. On April 13, the European Data Protection Board launched a task force to coordinate investigations by several nations into whether OpenAI violated privacy laws when it trained ChatGPT. Since 2021, EU lawmakers have been crafting the AI Act, a set of rules designed to regulate automated systems according to their potential for harm. The AI Act is expected to pass into law later this year.
Why it matters: The EU is on the leading edge of regulating AI. As with many national-level efforts, Europe’s investigations into social media algorithms could reduce harms and promote social well-being well beyond the union’s borders.
We’re thinking: This is a welcome step. Governments need to understand technology before they can craft thoughtful regulations to manage it. ECAT looks like a strong move in that direction.