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Tech companies love to invoke urgency. On February 19, 2023, Sam Altman, CEO of the company developing ChatGPT, tweeted: "the adaptation to a world deeply integrated with AI tools is probably going to happen pretty quickly; the benefits (and fun!) have too much upside." He concluded his thread with the words: "having time to understand what's happening, how people want to use these tools, and how society can co-evolve is critical."

The idea that society has to adjust to technological advancement is not new. Altman's tweet was soon rightfully discredited by many as an outstanding example of tone-deaf technological determinism. This is the belief that technology follows its own set of laws and is a force outside our control. A force with its own will and timeline, which sooner or later society will have to adapt to.

Obviously, it is not technology, but the companies developing technology that hurtle forward at a solitary pace. They do so because there's money to be made by speeding. Mega companies such as Altman's, enrich themselves by exploiting vulnerabilities in our democratic processes and the rule of law. And by abusing laws and policies that aren't bully proof. They seem to be able to act faster than anyone else, because they aren't "encumbered" by democratic decision making. They take no responsibility for a collective and just future, nor show any concern for the victims of their reckless behavior.

Instead of condemning this conduct, governments surprisingly often replicate it. When the Dutch cabinet presents urgent measures, Parliament enters into urgent consultations, so that the urgent measures can be rolled out via an urgency procedure. Within a few weeks -- or sometimes even a few days, regulatory bodies and NGOs issue urgent responses. But there is, of course, no time to process this feedback. Urgency rarely leads to strong legislation, let alone legislation that can count on broad support.

Or take this more concrete example. The Dutch police recently published their framework for the deployment of facial-recognition technology. Fast and related words feature four times in the half-page-long preface. And elsewhere in the document, the authors write: "Developments of both a societal and technological nature are occurring in rapid succession, often in a tempo that makes it difficult to keep pace with with formal legislation." They conclude that, as long as society hasn't "caught up", the police must deploy facial recognition technology outside the law. But facial recognition technology isn't a force of nature. Making use of potentially highly repressive technology, and doing so without a legal basis, is a choice. And the wrong one, if you ask us.

Urgency is a powerful weapon. When governments choose to mirror tech company's extractive behavior, they not only become unpredictable and untrustworthy, but they undermine their own legitimacy. The rule of law and our democratic processes are by design multivocal, and yes, in many ways sluggish. But these are strengths, not weaknesses. And it's high time the government starts regarding them as such.

For us, 2023 will be all about AI legislation, reclaiming an online space for civic discourse, and limiting government surveillance and censorship. We plan to invest in technological research, European campaigning and broad opposition to harmful digitization. But before speeding ahead, we'd like to take a moment to look back on the successes of the past year. Kijk je mee?

Bits of Freedom
March, 2023


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Evelyn Austin
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