Hand holding a device using ChatGPT while robot hands reach for it, with the flag of Italy as background

Italy blocks ChatGPT over privacy concerns

Image credit: Canva and Dreamstime

Italy's data protection authority has temporarily blocked the AI software ChatGPT while it investigates possible violations of European Union privacy regulations.

Italy has announced it will temporarily block OpenAI's chatbot ChatGPT from processing Italian users' data until the company "respects privacy". 

The Italian Data Protection Authority, also known as Garante, said it was investigating potential breaches of the EU's data protection regulation by the popular AI chatbot.

Garante accused the company of failing to check that its users were aged 13 and above. It argued that this “exposes children to receiving responses that are absolutely inappropriate to their age and awareness.” 

The Italian watchdog also stated ChatGPT has an "absence of any legal basis that justifies the massive collection and storage of personal data" to "train" the chatbot. 

In response, US-based OpenAI has disabled ChatGPT for Italian users. The company also stated it works “to reduce personal data in training our AI systems like ChatGPT because we want our AI to learn about the world, not about private individuals.”

OpenAI continued: “We also believe that AI regulation is necessary, so we look forward to working closely with the Garante and educating them on how our systems are built and used”.

The restriction affects the web version of ChatGPT. Nonetheless, it is unlikely to affect software applications from companies that already have licenses with OpenAI to use the technology, such as Microsoft’s search engine Bing. 

According to the Italian regulator, OpenAI must now report, within 20 days, what measures it has taken to ensure the privacy of users’ data or face a fine of up to either €20m (£17m) or 4 per cent of annual global revenue.

Over the past few weeks, the rise in popularity of AI chatbots has raised concerns from data protection advocates. Last week, notable technology figures including Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak signed an open letter warning that AI labs were locked in an "out-of-control race" and calling for a six-month pause on all large-scale AI experiments. 

“While it is not clear how enforceable these decisions will be, the very fact that there seems to be a mismatch between the technological reality on the ground and the legal frameworks of Europe” shows there may be something to the letter’s call for a pause “to allow for our cultural tools to catch up,” said Nello Cristianini, an AI professor at the University of Bath.

At the same time, the European Commission is debating the EU AI Act, which aims to provide a framework that would guide the responsible use of these technologies. 

"No matter which tech we use, we have to continue to advance our freedoms and protect our rights. That's why we don't regulate AI technologies, we regulate the uses of AI," said Margrethe Vestager, executive vice president of the European Commission. "Let's not throw away in a few years what has taken decades to build."

European consumer group BEUC has also called for EU authorities and the bloc’s 27 member nations to investigate ChatGPT and similar AI chatbots, warning that the EU's AI legislation could take years to be implemented. 

"There are serious concerns growing about how ChatGPT and similar chatbots might deceive and manipulate people," said Ursula Pachl, deputy director general of BEUC. "These AI systems need greater public scrutiny and public authorities must reassert control over them." 

ChatGPT is estimated to have gained 100 million monthly active users in the first two months after its launch, making it the fastest-growing consumer application in history, according to a UBS study published last month. However, OpenAI has been clear that the software remains a work in progress, as some of the chatbot's responses have proven to be inaccurate.

Seeing the chatbot’s success, many companies have jumped at the chance of developing their own chatbots or incorporating existing ones into their products. Last month, Microsoft launched a ChatGPT-powered version of its search engine Bing. Shortly after, Google launched a rival chatbot, Bard. 

The rise in popularity of these technologies has prompted countries like the UK to begin designing ‘light-touch’ regulatory frameworks regarding the safe use of AI

OpenAI’s chatbot is also currently unavailable in mainland China, Hong Kong, Iran and Russia and parts of Africa. 

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