Italy has issued a temporary ban against ChatGPT amid growing concerns over the popular artificial intelligence chatbot's data privacy practices.

The Italian Data Protection Authority, otherwise known as Garante, has launched an investigation into ChatGPT over a possible breach of privacy rules – during which the platform will be limited from processing the data of Italian users.

In a scathing statement from Garante, the privacy watchdog said the ban is a temporary measure put in place "until ChatGPT respects privacy".

Garante laid into ChatGPT-owner OpenAI with a series of criticisms supporting the ban, and questioned whether there was an adequate legal basis supporting the AI company's data collection practices.

"There appears to be no legal basis underpinning the massive collection and processing of personal data in order to ‘train’ the algorithms on which the platform relies," it said.

Garante also implied lacklustre transparency surrounding ChatGPT's data collection, referring to a "lack of a notice to users and to all those involved whose data is gathered by OpenAI."

The privacy watchdog seemed to further scrutinise ChatGPT's propensity for inaccurate chat responses, stating "the information made available by ChatGPT does not always match factual circumstances”, before finally pointing to a "lack of age verification" which could potentially expose children using ChatGPT to receive responses "inappropriate to their age and awareness".

The ban, effective as of last Friday, temporarily limits ChatGPT from processing Italian users' data.

OpenAI has since disabled ChatGPT for users in Italy, and has paused subscription renewals to prevent users from being charged during the platform's suspension.

"We regret to inform you that we have disabled ChatGPT for users in Italy at the request of the Italian Garante," read a message from ChatGPT.

"We are committed to protecting people's privacy and we believe we offer ChatGPT in compliance with GDPR and other privacy laws. We will engage with the Garante with the goal of restoring your access as soon as possible."

OpenAI CEO Sam Altman said the company would comply with the ban order but expressed disagreement that it had broken suggested privacy laws.

"We of course defer to the Italian government and have ceased offering ChatGPT in Italy (though we think we are following all privacy laws)," said Altman.

In its statement, Garante also made mention of the recent ChatGPT data breach which exposed limited chat history, personal details and payment information from users.

Following Italy's ban order, OpenAI has announced it would issue refunds to all users in Italy who purchased a ChatGPT Plus subscription during March.

The Italian watchdog has allocated a 20-day timeframe for OpenAI to report what measures it has taken to ensure the privacy of users' data or potentially face a fine of up to either $32.4 million (20 million euros) or 4 per cent of annual global revenue.

Calls for AI to slow down

The ban arrived just days after a monumental call for companies such as OpenAI to co-operate with a six-month freeze on "out-of-control" AI development.

In a Future of Life Institute (FLI) open letter signed by over 1,300 academics, tech and business experts – including the likes of Twitter CEO Elon Musk – AI companies were urged to slow AI development due to its "profound risks to society and humanity".

The letter warned against the breakneck speed of AI adoption and development, and implied AI could "flood our information channels with propaganda and untruth" and incur a “loss of control of our civilisation” if left unchecked.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Altman said OpenAI has not started training GPT-5, and noted the company has "long given priority to safety in development".

“In some sense, this is preaching to the choir,” said Altman.

“We have, I think, been talking about these issues the loudest, with the most intensity, for the longest.”

At an estimated 100 million monthly active users as of January, ChatGPT is said to be the fastest-growing consumer application in history.

While ChatGPT is already unavailable in mainland China, Iran, Russia and certain parts of Africa, Italy's temporary ban marks the first Western country to block the rapidly developing chatbot.

The decision has been met by ample criticism from users and AI experts alike, with many taking issue over the potential impact such bans could have on AI innovation as a whole.

Barb Hyman, CEO of Australian AI-powered recruitment platform Sapia, voiced disagreement with the ban and pointed to similar data practices found between OpenAI and companies such as Meta and Google.

"Yes, we have to be responsible with how we build and use AI, but you can’t pause let alone stop innovation," said Hyman.

"If not OpenAI, it will be someone else,” she added.