We caught up with MEP Liisa Jaakonsaari, who proposed a study on the role algorithms in society in the European Parliament which is now the algoaware project. We asked her a few questions about why she thought such a project was necessary, her perspectives on why raising awareness of algorithmic decision-making is important and some of the challenges politicians face with emerging digital technologies.

Why did you suggest to the Commission to carry out a study on algorithmic decision-making?

I had been following the debate around algorithmic decision-making and concerns raised by some members of academia regarding awareness, accountability, fairness and transparency of these systems, since my re-election in 2014, and I felt it was necessary to address these concerns at EU-level.

In the spring of 2016, when I was the Rapporteur for the Budget Opinion of the Committee on Internal Market and Consumer Protection in the European Parliament, I decided to propose a study on the role of algorithms in digital societies.

Algorithmic decision-making systems play an increasingly important role in our society, which calls for scrutiny. We should embrace the opportunities, but aim to minimise the risks to ensure that society at large benefits from the huge potential of technological progress.

What are the key opportunities and challenges that are emerging in relation to algorithmic decision-making?

I believe opportunities lie in all sectors. Algorithmic decision-making systems can bring efficiency, predictability and consistency, but within these opportunities are embedded the challenges. The data used for algorithmic decisions can contain distortions, which can lead to discrimination, and the lack of awareness by citizens reduces their agency and influence. In general, there is a lack of accountability, which we have to address.

I hope this study will come up with more in depth answers to the opportunities and challenges of algorithmic decision-making and also suggest some solutions, this would be valuable input to us policy makers. I believe some form of governance is needed to ensure accountability and fairness of algorithmic decisions that significantly impact citizens. We must uphold fundamental rights such as right to privacy, equality, non-discrimination and freedom of expression. This is essential in order maintain citizens’ trust in the digital transformation.

What are the challenges politicians face in dealing with digital policy?

Digitalisation is the Fourth Industrial Revolution and as with all major transitions, the role of politicians is to try to understand the bigger picture and foresee the potential societal impacts. However, technological innovation progresses so fast, that legislators are inevitably one step or perhaps several steps behind. Having foresight in such a complex and dynamic field is difficult.

Legislation is needed, but determining the appropriate level of regulation can be challenging. We need to find the right balance between fostering innovation and managing risks.

I believe the EU can be a global leader in paving a way for a just and sustainable digital transition. China and USA have a very different approach, for example, to privacy, which I do not want to see replicated in Europe. Data is an essential part of digitalisation and algorithmic decision-making systems. However, it seems that big data is concentrating in fewer and fewer hands and we need to consider the impact of this on our democracy and our society.

How do we raise awareness among citizens on algorithmic decision-making and what are your activities in this space?

On the one hand, we have to ensure that adequate policies are put is in place in regards to algorithmic accountability and transparency, but equally important is to empower citizens.

Awareness about digital rights and the impact of algorithmic decision-making have to go “viral”. Communicating about these issues in a compact, easily understandable way is key and I believe it is the responsibility of politicians and industry alike. I think there is also a role for universities and colleges to share their knowledge. I would like to see more seminars on these topics that are open to the general public.

In the past few years, I have worked hard to push the ethical discussion to the foreground in the European Parliament and in my home country, Finland, and I continue to communicate directly to citizens about these issues. I organised a seminar in October on Algorithms and Digital Education and I have written numerous blog posts and articles in newspapers. I found that there is a lot of interest in these issues, which is very positive!

Can you tell us more about the seminar “Algorithms and Digital Education” that you hosted in Helsinki on the 5th of October?

I had the pleasure to host a seminar on algorithms in Helsinki, Finland in October. We had a lot of interest with over 300 people attending or following the seminar online, so it was a big success, thanks of course to our excellent and inspiring speakers.

We had presentations by university lecturers, industry representatives and experts on media literacy, followed by a panel discussion. I was very happy to welcome Prabhat Agarwal and Anni Hellman from DG Connect, who gave an overview of COM activities on algorithms and tackling hate speech online.

As a next step, I would like to organise a follow-up seminar to present some results from the ongoing study.

Liisa Jaakonsaari is a Finnish politician who has served as a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) since 2009. She is a member of the Social Democratic Party, part of the Socialists and Democrats group in the European Parliament.  As member of the Parliament’s Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee, Jaakonsaari has worked on legislation relating to the Single Market and the digital agenda. In 2016, she proposed a pilot project on the role of algorithms in digital societies, which became the algoaware study procured by the European Commission. Before taking up office as MEP, Jaakonsaari was a member of the Finnish Parliament for 30 years, serving as Minister for Labour in 1995-1999.