Interview with Fanny Hidvegi, Access Now

Access Now defends and extends the digital rights of users at risk around the world. By combining direct technical support, comprehensive policy engagement, global advocacy, grassroots grant making, legal interventions, and convenings such as RightsCon, Access Now fights for human rights in the digital age. Their Brussels team promotes the organisation’s programmatic goals in the European context on issues such as AI and data protection by advancing legislative processes, empowering users, and holding the private sector accountable.

We have talked to Fanny Hidvegi, Access Now’s Policy and Advocacy Director to find out more about their advocacy wins and challenges.


The European Union is promising world leading regulation on AI – how do you assess their proposals?

Fanny: The proposed AI Act first of all is not even about what we define as artificial intelligence. It is about putting procedures and obligations in place for the use of automated systems in certain contexts in the EU market to ensure that they are safe and respect fundamental rights. The AI Act follows a risk-based approach, which falls short of our original expectations, but it still includes very important safeguards that can hopefully prevent and mitigate risks and violations to human rights both on the individual and on the collective level. Still, there’s a lot of work to be done to improve the protections for fundamental rights. Thankfully we’re seeing the European Parliament taking some very positive steps in that direction, but nothing is ensured yet.


How has Access Now in particular and civil society in general been engaging in the debate on the AI Act? What have been your biggest wins so far?

Fanny: It’s too soon to tell what our biggest win will be for the proposal. I’m pretty sure though that the biggest win overall has been the NGO coalition work with EDRi and its members, AlgorithmWatch, European Disability Forum and others. We all know that the only way for fundamental rights to prevail in a negotiation like this is if we have a unified voice for the important issues, if we have evidence based and hard-fought concrete recommendations, and an agile and collegial group of committed people working toward the best possible outcome. For Access Now we’re lucky to have this file in Daniel Leufer’s hands. If I really had to pick one win at this stage it would be that the EU will ban certain harmful applications that are unacceptable in a democratic society. Which applications of today and equally importantly the applications of tomorrow, will be important metrics to assess whether the law delivers on its promises.


What are the biggest challenges you face in your advocacy work?

Fanny: Personally, I find it very difficult to stay positive and motivated under the current circumstances and trends in our world but hopefully our advocacy work can improve the situation even if just a tiny bit. In my view there are two main generic challenges we face in our advocacy work in Brussels. First, within the Brussels bubble, our team and capacity is just so small compared to how many people work on these issues in the EU institutions, companies and in national governments. That’s why the coalition work is so essential to conduct the necessary research, build relationships and to mobilise. Second, legislative negotiations are completely detached from people’s daily realities even if a topic impacts many, if not all, of us. The EU itself is not doing a great job at bridging this gap and civil society often replicates this problem.


 What else is on the horizon?

Fanny: At our Access Now Brussels office we need to look beyond the EU legislative process and ensure the enjoyment of fundamental rights in people’s daily lives. Therefore, the enforcement reform of the GDPR is a high priority, and the work on the Digital Services Act doesn’t stop now. We will push the European Commission to put in place the practical measures such as due diligence procedures for online platforms to implement changes to their content moderation policies and beyond. My colleagues are working on principles and recommendations for content moderation in times of crises. We should mention that the ePrivacy reform has still not finished yet and the confidentiality of electronic communications is the cornerstone of human rights in the digital age. This is particularly important because instead of a systemic European legislative approach for limits and bans on microtargeting of ads and other content we still rely on a patchwork of rules.