More Penguins Than Europeans Can Use Google Bard
Google Bard, the search giant’s ChatGPT rival, is already available in 180 countries and territories. But even though it’s been widely available for months and was the centerpiece of Google’s recent I/O event, it’s missing one big region. The 450 million people living in the European Union are still unable to access Bard, or any of the company’s other generative AI technologies. It’s a move that has surprised lawmakers, and even Google won’t say why it’s holding back.
Brando Benifei, the MEP leading the negotiations on Europe’s new artificial intelligence rules, is not sure why the bloc had been excluded, describing the omission of the EU from Bard’s rollout as a “big issue.” A number of experts who spoke to WIRED suspect that Google is using Bard to send a message that the EU’s laws around privacy and online safety aren’t to its liking. But more than this, it could be a sign that generative AI technology as it exists now is fundamentally incompatible with existing and developing privacy and online safety laws in the EU.
The uncertainty around Bard’s rollout in the region comes as the bloc’s lawmakers are negotiating new draft rules to govern artificial intelligence via the fledgling AI Act. A number of existing laws, from GDPR to the Digital Services Act (DSA), may also be holding up the rollout of generative AI systems in the bloc.
“[It’s possible] they are taking the opportunity to send a message to MEPs just before the AI Act is approved, trying to steer the votes and to make sure policymakers think twice before trying to govern foundation models,” says Nicolas Moës, director of European AI governance at think tank The Future Society. Google is not alone in trying to incentivize policymakers to soften regulation this way, Moës adds. Facebook parent Meta also chose not to launch BlenderBot, its generative AI chatbot, in the EU.
But in a strange twist, Google has made its generative AI services available in a small number of territories of European countries, including the Norwegian dependency of Bouvet Island, an uninhabited island in the South Atlantic Ocean that’s home to 50,000 penguins. Bard is also available in the Åland Islands, an autonomous region of Finland, as well as the Norwegian territories of Jan Mayen and Svalbard.
Tobias Judin, head of the international department at Norway’s data protection authority, says it’s “very strange” that Bard can be used in these territories, since Europe’s data rules still “mostly” apply. But he adds that it’s possible the move could be an “oversight” on Google’s part or the result of more lax regulations in these far-flung places.
Google declined a request to comment on the availability of Bard in these territories or on claims that it is trying to influence AI policy by not rolling out the chatbot and other generative AI products in the EU. “While we haven’t finalized the timeline for expansion plans, we will roll it out gradually and responsibly and continue to be a helpful and engaged partner to regulators as we navigate these new technologies together,” says Google spokesperson Delia Williams-Falokun. The company’s new AI-infused search engine will not be available in the EU either, as it’s launching only in the US.
The bloc’s omission hints at the larger power struggle between regulators and Big Tech in Europe. At a minimum, the search giant needs more time to compare Bard with the EU’s draft AI Act, says Henk van Ess, a visiting professor at the Freetech Axel Springer Academy of Journalism and Technology in Berlin. “The proposed regulation emphasizes the importance of transparency and traceability in AI systems,” he says. “It may be challenging for large language models like Google Bard to fully comply with this requirement, as the decision-making process in these models can be complex and not easily interpretable.”
AI Act rules may also pose an issue if Google has trained Bard on a data set containing errors or biases, adds van Ess. In April, researchers found that they could prompt Bard to deny climate change, mischaracterize the war in Ukraine, and question vaccine efficacy. “Google is playing cautious,” says Robin Rohm, founder of Berlin-based AI startup Apheris. “They recognize that Bard might be considered a product that enables high-risk applications, and this could expose them to risk under the proposed regulation. The delay could be an effort to buy them time.”
Any high-profile mistakes in the EU could cost the company big in the months and years to come. Google will be sensitive to the fact that whatever happens now will likely influence the negotiations around the AI Act, according to Daniel Leufer, a Brussels-based senior policy analyst with digital rights group Access Now. “If ChatGPT, Bard, et cetera, in the next six to seven months, are responsible for serious public blunders, then measures that would address those blunders could very well find their way into the AI Act,” he says.
The draft rules of the AI Act aren’t expected to be approved until next year, but other EU regulations may already be causing Google headaches. Europe’s new Digital Services Act could also be playing a role when it comes to Google incorporating Bard into its search setup, says Harshvardhan Pandit, an assistant professor at the Adapt Centre at Dublin City University. “Given that Bard also acts as a search engine, it may be that Google is also trialing integrating ads into it and does not want to be subject to the DSA at the moment,” Pandit says. The DSA introduces new rules around online advertising.
With competition to push out more generative AI services building, Europe’s privacy laws are already causing issues for new services. “There’s a lingering question whether these very large data sets, that have been collected more or less by indiscriminate scraping, have a sufficient legal basis under the GDPR,” says Leufer. At the end of March, Italy’s data regulator temporarily banned ChatGPT for not following the bloc’s GDPR privacy rules. OpenAI had “unlawfully” collected personal information from the web as part of its training data, the regulator said, as well as failing to inform people how their data was being used or developing tools to stop children from using ChatGPT.
The move resulted in OpenAI making changes to let people delete more data from ChatGPT, along with a host of other concessions. While ChatGPT is now available in Italy again, the country’s data regulator is still scrutinizing the technology. The decision prompted other EU countries to create a joint task force to investigate ChatGPT further. The Irish Data Protection Authority, which handles GDPR issues relating to Google, Meta, Microsoft and Apple, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about whether it had discussed the rollout of Bard in Europe with Google.
However, it’s possible that GDPR rules are one reason Bard isn’t being launched in the European Economic Area (EEA), a group of countries that includes the EU bloc, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, says Norway’s Judin. He adds that the Norwegian authority doesn’t have any information about why the EU and EEA have been excluded from Bard’s launch.