Italy’s ChatGPT ban attracts the attention of regulators around the world. What’s next?

Various governments are exploring how to regulate AI, with some even considering joining Italy in banning the technology.
6 April 2023

Italy’s ChatGPT ban attracts the attention of regulators around the world. What’s next? Source: Shutterstock

Italy has imposed a temporary ban on ChatGPT, as of March 31st. The Italian Data Protection Authority issued a temporary emergency decision demanding OpenAI stop using the personal information of millions of Italians for its AI chatbot. The ban was a blow to OpenAI – the first of its kind – and was enough to send a message to governments and regulators around the world.

In the Italian watchdog’s defense, OpenAI doesn’t have the legal right to use people’s personal information in ChatGPT. Not only would it block OpenAI’s chatbot but it would also investigate whether it complied with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a strict pan-Europe law that governs the way in which Europeans can use, process and store personal data.

OpenAI on the other hand claims that it did comply with privacy laws. In a statement that appears online to users with an Italian IP address, the company said that it “regrets” to inform users that it has disabled access to users in Italy — at the “request” of the data protection authority.

That means OpenAI will have to provide responses to the officials, who are investigating possible breaches of the GDPR. Based on GDPR, OpenAI, which is backed by Microsoft, risks facing a fine of 20 million euros (US$21.8 million), or 4% of its global annual revenue, if it doesn’t come up with remedies to the situation in 20 days.

OpenAI said it will also issue refunds to all users in Italy who bought the ChatGPT Plus subscription service last month — and notes, too, that it is “temporarily pausing” subscription renewals there in order that users won’t be charged while the service is suspended.  “We are committed to protecting people’s privacy and we believe we offer ChatGPT in compliance with GDPR and other privacy laws.”

The company said it will engage with the Garante with the goal of restoring access as soon as possible. “Many of you have told us that you find ChatGPT helpful for everyday tasks, and we look forward to making it available again soon,” OpenAI added in its statement to users following the ban of ChatGPT in Italy.

First ChatGPT ban – but will more follow suit?

 While the action by Italy may be the first taken against ChatGPT by a Western regulator, other European countries have indicated similar concerns just days after the temporary ban on ChatGPT. Report indicates that France, Germany, and Ireland have contacted the Italian Data Protection Authority to ask for more information on its findings. 

All in all, the wave of inquiries in Europe signals privacy tensions around the creation of giant generative AI models, which are often trained on vast swathes of internet data. An article by Wired quoted Tobias Judin, the head of international at Norway’s data protection authority, stating that “if the business model has just been to scrape the internet for whatever you could find, then there might be a really significant issue here. ”

Jubin, according to Wired, adds that if a model is built on data that may be unlawfully collected, it raises questions about whether anyone can use the tools legally. Judin also noted that the Italian decision highlights more immediate concerns. “Essentially, we’re seeing that AI development to date could potentially have a massive shortcoming,” Judin added.

Right before Italy’s ban came in, there were growing calls for AI to be regulated. In fact on March 22, an open letter signed by hundreds of prominent AI experts, tech leaders, and scientists calls for a pause on the development and testing of AI technologies more powerful than OpenAI’s language model GPT-4 so that the risks it may pose can be properly studied.

Even governments are finding it difficult to keep up, considering the pace at which the technology has progressed. The UK for instance announced plans for regulating AI. Rather than establish new regulations, the government asked regulators in different sectors to apply existing regulations to AI.

Although the proposal by the UK doesn’t mention ChatGPT by name, it outlines some key principles for companies to follow when using AI in their products, including safety, transparency, fairness, accountability, and contestability. What is certain is that we can expect to hear more governments discussing the need to regulate AI chatbots and ChatGPT doing whatever it takes to circumvent the ban in Italy.