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House Oversight cyber panel feuds over legality of Biden’s AI order

PoliticsHouse Oversight cyber panel feuds over legality of Biden's AI order

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The House Committee on Oversight and Accountability is divided on whether President Biden‘s executive order on artificial intelligence is an illegal abuse of power threatening to crush American innovation.

The House committee’s cyber panel is scrutinizing Mr. Biden‘s sweeping 2023 order, and some lawmakers harbor concerns that the president’s use of the Defense Production Act in the order goes too far.

The act is a Korean War-era law intended to influence private-sector production for national defense. Mr. Biden previously used the act to increase vaccine production, resolve a shortage of baby formula, and promote renewable energy.

Rep. Nancy Mace, the cyber panel’s chairwoman, said Thursday that Mr. Biden‘s new use of the act’s emergency powers will force AI developers to hand over sensitive and proprietary data to the government.

The South Carolina Republican expressed concern about giving such data to the Commerce Department, citing a devastating hack that compromised the emails of department personnel last year.

“The new executive powers this EO asserts have no logical sunset,” Ms. Mace said at a committee hearing. “The bottom line is that this use of the DPA appears to be executive overreach and quite frankly illegal.”

The outcome of the congressional fight over the president’s new AI actions will help determine who is in charge of writing AI rules in America, with major consequences for the emerging tech sector.

While Mr. Biden‘s previous use of emergency powers has drawn criticism, some tech policy experts see the president’s AI order as unequaled in scope and scale.

Neil Chilson, head of AI policy at the Abundance Institute, told lawmakers that Mr. Biden‘s order on AI is the longest regulatory executive order in history and looks more like congressional legislation than a legitimate exercise of executive branch authority.

He said the order directs new actions from dozens of agencies and officials, and mandates 136 different requirements, including new reports and projects.

“No president has ever issued such a long and detailed executive order to reorient the federal government on a policy issue,” Mr. Chilson told lawmakers. “The executive order will generate sweeping activity across the federal government, redirecting at least tens of millions of tax dollars and hundreds of thousands of hours of government effort.”

Mr. Chilson said although some of the government’s anticipated actions will be appropriate, the president lacks the authority to impose the order’s obligations on private companies. Mr. Chilson said the order will empower the government to surveil an entire industry for risks unrelated to production as intended by the Defense Production Act.

Jennifer Huddleston, Cato Institute tech policy research fellow, told lawmakers in written testimony that the order made clear the administration rushed to regulate without a distinct delegation of power from Congress.

Mr. Biden‘s allies in Congress were angered by the tech policy professionals’ close read of the order, and applauded the president for writing rules amid lawmakers’ ongoing failure to win support for their proposed laws for AI.

Rep. Gerry Connolly, Virginia Democrat, said the president was right to take unilateral action because “this is not a serious Congress.” He said it is unlikely that any AI legislation will become law anytime soon.

“We’re not doing anything,” Mr. Connolly said at Thursday’s hearing. “And when that happens, it seems to me, the president has an obligation to address an urgent and imminent subject like AI.”

Alongside questions on the order’s legality, Mr. Biden‘s order has provoked concerns that it may benefit China in the communist nation’s race to win supremacy in AI development.

R Street Institute senior fellow Adam Thierer told lawmakers that they should be mindful that America’s success in the AI race is not guaranteed.

“When OpenAI launched ChatGPT in late 2022, it quickly became the most rapidly adopted digital technology in history, and competing U.S. services from U.S. developers followed quickly,” Mr. Thierer said at the hearing. “Had a Chinese operator launched a major generative AI model first, it would have been a Sputnik moment for America.”

While Congress is debating Mr. Biden‘s actions on AI, his emissaries are busily working to secure international cooperation on AI rulemaking.

The United Nations General Assembly approved its first resolution on artificial intelligence on Thursday, adopted via consensus without a vote.

The resolution was sponsored by the U.S., and Vice President Kamala Harris said the measure made clear that protecting human rights would be central to the development and use of AI.

“Together we have set a path whereby AI can be harnessed for sustainable development, all nations gain access to AI resources and expertise, and all nations understand the need to protect the safety, privacy, and human rights of their citizens,” Ms. Harris said in a statement.

This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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