How a dreadlocked Czech can reshape EU tech policy
After France, the Czech Republic now holds the six-monthly rotating presidency of the European Union. Its senior technical manager Ivan Bartoš makes a surprising figure.
Bartoš wears dreadlocks and a ponytail. He is a member of the Czech Pirate Party and holds a doctorate in computer science. Since 2021, he has been Deputy Prime Minister of the Czech Republic in charge of digitalisation, a position which makes him the main technology negotiator in the Council of the EU until next January.
The contrast is stark with his predecessor, Bruno Le Maire, the strict and harsh French finance minister. Under the French presidency, Le Maire completed two landmark regulations, the Digital Markets Act, which imposes tough new restrictions on the activities of Big Tech’s biggest companies, and the Digital Services Act, which increases responsibilities. of all Internet platforms to deal with illegal content. .
The Czech government of Bartoš represents a break not only with dirigiste France but also with its Czech predecessor. Former Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, a eurosceptic, was underbudgeted for the European Council presidency. The new pro-Western, pro-European government has taken a strong stance in favor of Ukraine (which remains the overall priority of its presidency) and sees technology as an advantage rather than a danger.
Bartoš and the Czechs have important technology files open, ranging from artificial intelligence, data sharing, product safety responsibility and platform work. As President of the Council, Bartoš and the Czechs cannot impose their political positions. Their task is to forge compromises. The President’s influence consists of setting the agenda and conducting negotiations on behalf of the Council with the Commission and the Parliament.
Before turning to politics, Bartoš worked as a software engineer and executive at various Czech and global technology companies, including Deutsche Telekom’s T-Mobile and digital advertiser Monster Worldwide. In college, he studied theology and computer science, graduating from Charles University in Prague. As a doctoral student, he specialized in databases. During his studies, he worked for a semester at the School of Computer Science at the University of New Orleans.
Bartoš took over as leader of the Pirate Party in 2009. The party’s platform defends internet freedom. As one of 22 Pirate Party members of the Czech Parliament between 2017 and 2021, Bartoš was instrumental in passing the so-called “Digital Constitution”, which aims to digitize Czech public services.
On the European scene, a key priority is to negotiate an agreement on the law on artificial intelligence. While the European Commission’s initial proposal generated little controversy, the European Parliament’s amendments risk broadening the scope and narrowing previously exempt apps. This would make the law difficult to enforce and limit the use of AI systems in society.
For the Czech Republic, an export-oriented country, Bartoš says AI law must remain “business-friendly and innovation-friendly”. He proposed exempting programs that verify the authenticity of travel documents, determine the prices of insurance policies and help reduce pollution, according to POLITICO. “With AI, the technology is changing rapidly and we want to create a legal framework that says ‘it’s good, it’s progress, it will help people and take us into the future,’ Bartoš explained in a recent interview.
Another controversial proposal is the Data Act, a regulation intended to strengthen the sharing of industrial data. The European Data Protection Board has already raised privacy concerns. Companies fear being forced to hand over data to competitors – even Russians or Chinese – with serious security risks. Bartoš expressed concern, saying the Commission’s text lacked direction and that some chapters dealt with “so much” that they would “only scratch the surface”.
The platform’s work file promises to be even more difficult. The European Commission has pushed Uber and others to treat online platform workers as employees. The Czech Republic is in favor of the proposal, with the Minister of Labor and Social Affairs saying it would support the establishment of “fair and equal conditions”. Revelations from the so-called “Uber Files” showing how the company flouted the law in Europe are further increasing pressure to change the legal status of platform workers. But member states remain very divided on the subject.
Another important piece of legislation is the Chips Act, which would authorize subsidies for European semiconductor factories. Under Bartoš, the Czechs proposed adding climate sustainability requirements to qualify for public funding.
A project close to Bartoš’s heart is the construction of a European digital ID that allows European citizens to authenticate their identity online. But this proposal is also controversial. Proponents believe the scheme will prevent online fraud and make it easy for Europeans to receive recognition of their degrees and other credentials not just in their home country, but across the 27-nation bloc.
But critics fear that the unique identifier tied to each digital ID could threaten users’ privacy. The EU’s cybersecurity agency has warned of the risks of digital IDs. Bartos will have to skillfully maneuver Council meetings if he wants to reach an agreement before October 2022, when the Commission plans to start testing this e-identity.
Despite their pro-American and digital leanings, Bartoš and the Czechs won’t make life easier for Washington and the US tech industry. Digital policy will take a back seat to help Ukraine or fight inflation and energy insecurity. But the wave of legislation to come on AI or data governance will have a disproportionate impact on American companies – and Washington could end up pushing back hard on what it sees as European overregulation.
Bill Echikson is the interim director of CEPA’s Digital Innovation Initiative. Charles Martinet is a student at Sciences Po Paris and an intern at the Digital Innovation Initiative.