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Google and Microsoft clash over facial recognition regulation

Two of Google and Microsoft’s most senior executives have clashed over the regulation of facial recognition, as calls for a ban on the technology gather momentum.

In a rare public policy intervention, Sundar Pichai – the chief executive of Google parent company Alphabet – yesterday backed a five-year ban on facial recognition proposed by the European Commission.

Speaking at a conference in Brussels, Pichai said it was important for governments and regulators to tackle the ethical issues surrounding the technology “sooner rather than later and give a framework for it”.

He added: “It can be immediate but maybe there’s a waiting period before we really think about how it’s being used. It’s up to governments to chart the course.”

But Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer, challenged the proposals, arguing that the only way to make technology better is to use it.

“I’m really reluctant to say let’s stop people from using technology in a way that will reunite families when it can help them do it,” he said.

“The second thing I would say is you don’t ban it if you actually believe there is a reasonable alternative that will enable us to, say, address this problem with a scalpel instead of a meat cleaver.”

However, some critics noted that the European Commission has not called for an outright ban, but a prohibition on the use of the technology in public spaces.

Smith has previously been one of the most vocal champions of facial recognition regulation, having warned that it will be used for mass surveillance if lawmakers fail to create new rules to govern it.

Microsoft, under Smith’s leadership, has promised not to sell the technology to customers who would use it for such purposes. Google, meanwhile, has said it will not provide application programming interfaces (APIs) to customers.

The European Commission is expected to publish its proposals in the coming days in light of its new president Ursula von der Leyen’s pledge to draw up new AI regulations within the first 100 days of her premiership. The proposals just weeks after the US urged the EU to avoid punitive regulation that could play into the hands of Silicon Valley’s Chinese rivals.

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