In Conversation with Werner Stenng

On May 13, Access Partnership hosted a webinar, “In conversation with Werner Stenng: How will Covid-19 impact EU tech policy”. Werner Stenng is the Cabinet Expert for Digital Policy to European Commission Executive Vice-President Margrethe Vestager. Stenng provided an update on the Commission’s digital agenda which has been slightly disrupted due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Stenng commenced proceedings by outlining how the crisis had compounded the relevance of the Commission’s “Shaping Europe’s Digital Future” plans by highlighting examples of how technology has helped us through the crisis; “We communicated, shopped and educated ourselves online. We did not see one day where AI was trying to come up with new software to try diagnose covid. Look at the use of data sharing across hospitals in the Netherlands. And whilst there has been a huge push in using tech but also huge push in security and privacy concerns. Skills and connectivity issues also came up“.

When asked had the crisis antagonised the Commissions recently launched digital strategy, Stenng maintained that while there had been some disruptions these were not significant, “Overall we won’t see major delays in our work programme generally speaking, and the digital priorities are still there”. Stenng elaborated upon the impact the crisis has had in highlighting the Commission’s need to make progress in the digital sphere especially in terms of artificial intelligence (AI). “I saw in the media a suggestion not to regulate AI as it impedes solutions to the crisis. But we never wanted to over regulate AI we want to see maximum use of technology. But we said at the same time if there is high risk applications, we want them to be managed. We saw AI software developed in the context of Covid and some of those were not great or very strong in terms of quality. We need to be pragmatic and proportionate in what we do and to get this right we need the input from anybody concerned but we are not abandoning our value based tech policy in these days.”

Following on from this, the discussion soon turned to privacy and the introduction of contact tracing apps, and the question that these apps may become a new area for the Commission to legislate on. Mr. Stenng however, believes that whilst the apps are a good illustration of what technology can achieve, they also reflect the public’s privacy concerns. Mr. Stenng ascertained that by the time the Commission would have legislation drafted for such tools hopefully the apps would be redundant as the crisis would have passed at that point. Stenng also pointed out how the crisis has highlighted the importance of the GDPR, describing it as “The single biggest tech step we have taken in recent years”. Mr. Stenng also alluded to the Commissions upcoming GDPR report on June 10, hinting that the GDPR can possible work better in terms of practical implementation and that guidance and clarity was needed for certain aspects of the legislation.

Mr. Stenng concluded the webinar by reiterating the Commissions plans; “Overall the basic strategies of the Commission are again more relevant than ever. Digitalization and greening of our societies are the two biggest strategies. So we hope that if something good comes out of this crisis will allows us to invest in the future. More money than ever spent in such a short period of time across member states and by Europe we need to invest where we need it in 3-5 years’ time”.