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Sundar Pichai speaking at WEF

Google CEO backs GDPR, says privacy should not be a ‘luxury’

Image credit: REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Google CEO Sundar Pichai has doubled down on his support for government privacy regulations.

The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into force across the bloc in May 2018, aims to put individuals in control of their own data such that large digital companies are unable to collect, store, process and sell this data without their knowledge and consent.

Google owes much of its success as the world’s largest advertising platform to its extensive data collection practices, which allow for incredibly precise ad targeting based on information such as location, web activity, demographics and contact details.

However, amid a kickback against the intrusive data-collection practices of digital giants like Google and Facebook, these companies have taken to posturing as becoming more privacy conscious, introducing new tools to give users control over their data.

Speaking at Davos, Pichai - Google and Alphabet's CEO - promised to protect users’ information, stating that privacy is “at the heart of what we do”.

“Users come to Google at very important moments, ask us questions, we deal with people’s sensitive information in Gmail, Google Photos and so on and so we have to earn their trust,” he said. “Today we do it by giving them control and transparency and choice around it.”

Pichai added that privacy “cannot be a luxury good” and described GDPR as a “great template” which could provide guidance for other countries considering privacy-focused data regulations.

Pichai argued that AI tools could be more “profound” than fire or electricity, with particularly transformative potential in healthcare, such as through using AI tools for early detection of cancer and other conditions. He said that AI could also play an important role in managing concerns around climate change and privacy (as it could allow companies like Google to use make decisions based on less data).

However, he acknowledged that some applications of AI such as facial recognition could also have enormously damaging potential, such as its use in mass surveillance.

“I am clear-eyed about the risks with technology, but the biggest risk with AI may be failing to work on it and make more progress on it, because it can impact billions of people,” he said. “You need a global framework to arrive at a safer world.”

Pichai’s Davos appearance comes just days after he contributed an article to the Financial Times laying out his largely supportive position on tech regulation, particularly with regards to AI.

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