Italy has become the first Western country to block the use of ChatGPT, an advanced chatbot created by US start-up OpenAI and backed by Microsoft. The Italian data protection authority has cited concerns over privacy as the reason for the ban, which will also lead to an investigation of OpenAI.
Millions of people worldwide have used ChatGPT since its launch in November 2022 (over 100 million users!), and it is capable of answering questions using human-like language and imitating various writing styles by using the internet as its database. Microsoft has spent billions of dollars on the technology and recently added it to Bing, with plans to embed it in its Office apps, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook.
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The ChatGPT website has been blocked by some schools and universities due to concerns about student plagiarism. However, it is unclear how Italy would block it at a nationwide level. This block is unlikely to affect companies that already have licenses with OpenAI to use the same technology, such as Microsoft's Bing search engine.
Large language models, which power chatbots like ChatGPT, are able to mimic human writing styles by ingesting a vast amount of digital books and online writings. The Italian watchdog has given OpenAI 20 days to report on the measures it has taken to ensure user data privacy. Failure to comply may result in a fine of up to €20 million or 4% of the company's global annual revenue. The watchdog's statement highlights a loss of data on March 20, concerning users' conversations and payment information. OpenAI took ChatGPT offline on March 20 to fix a bug that allowed some users to see the titles of other users' chat history. The company stated that only a small percentage of users had their personal data revealed to another user and had contacted those affected. The Italian privacy watchdog criticized OpenAI for not notifying users and stakeholders whose data is gathered by the platform and for lacking a legal basis to justify the massive gathering and keeping of personal data. The watchdog also raised concerns about the inaccuracy of personal data gathered by ChatGPT and the absence of filters to verify the age of users, potentially exposing minors to inappropriate content. The Italian watchdog has given OpenAI 20 days to address its concerns, under penalty of a fine of €20m ($21.7m) or up to 4% of annual revenues. The regulator said that not only would it block the chatbot, but it would also investigate whether OpenAI complied with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which governs the use, processing, and storage of personal data. In March, the watchdog reported a data breach of user conversations and payment information involving ChatGPT. It added that the app "exposes minors to absolutely unsuitable answers compared to their degree of development and awareness". Concerns over AI's potential risks, including its threat to jobs and the spreading of misinformation and bias, have led key figures in tech, including Elon Musk, to call for the suspension of AI systems. Consumer advocacy group BEUC has urged EU and national authorities, including data protection watchdogs, to investigate ChatGPT and similar chatbots following the filing of a complaint in the US. Although the EU is currently working on the world's first legislation on AI, BEUC has warned that it would take years before the AI Act could take effect, leaving consumers at risk of harm from a technology that is not sufficiently regulated.
As AI-powered chatbots continue to gain popularity, concerns about data privacy and inappropriate content may lead to increased scrutiny and regulation. The ban on ChatGPT in Italy highlights the need for companies to prioritize user privacy and safety, while also emphasizing the potential impact of AI chatbots on vulnerable populations. As technology evolves, it will be crucial to find a balance between innovation and responsibility in the development and deployment of these systems.