Speaking at Blockchain for Europe Summit (27 September 2023)

I was honoured to speak at this year’s Blockchain for Europe Summit on the future of digital policy and priorities for the next EU Commission.

Here is what I said:

This mandate has been one of the busiest ever for Europe’s tech policy, and I think it marks a significant change for the EU.

We’ve seen a flurry of regulation, including new laws on data storage and use, competition in the digital sphere, online platforms, digital identity, and artificial intelligence, to name a few.

Throughout this mandate, we have seen lawmakers gain a better understanding of the impact of digital on everything: digital policy is no longer on the fringes, it is at the heart of what we are doing in the EU.

Europe is moving forward with a strategy that aims to reconcile technology and citizens’ rights.

Despite these improvements, I still see policy-makers committing cardinal sins:

  • using technical neutrality as an excuse not to engage with the technical challenges laws create, 
  • making laws without a clear understanding of the technologies they will impact,
  • taking a horizontal approach that tries to apply the same rules to drastically different sectors,
  • being deliberately unclear about what actions the industry needs to take and leaving it to them to “sort it out”,
  • and, worst of all, making technically impossible or contradictory laws.

We’ve seen it numerous times in recent years:

  • a copyright directive that says, “prevent the upload of copyrighted content, but don’t use automated upload filters“,
  • an approach to the blockchain that often misunderstands its core characteristics, and most recently,
  • a CSAM regulation that says, “Don’t break end-to-end encryption, but scan everyone’s conversations“.

What is positive, however, is that policymakers are facing growing pushback, both from the public and stakeholders. I can’t tell for sure what the next mandate will bring regarding specific policy measures, but I believe we will see a trend towards a less naïve and a better-informed approach that doesn’t shy away from technical challenges. We’ll also see less extensive policy proposals and a focus on enforcement, implementation, investment and exploration.

Photo credit: Blockchain for Europe

On enforcement, I think we’ll see the Commission start to flex its muscles with the DSA and DMA. On implementation, I think we’ll see a Commission building a toolkit for AI act enforcement and continuing to develop Europe’s thematic dataspaces. We’ll also see the beginning of the implementation of the new European Digital Wallet system, which will give all citizens a place to store proof of their status. But I think the most exciting area to watch is “investment and exploration”. I think it’s more and more apparent that Europe can’t rely on one “tech bro” to run the platform that hosts almost all of the world’s political debate, nor can we rely on a handful of companies to provide all the services we need to digitalize rapidly. We can try to tame these companies and services and limit how they wield the power they hold: that was the goal of the DSA and DMA, but ultimately, they still hold enormous power.

The Commission has been aware of this for some time and has begun to funnel some resources into developing alternatives, for instance, through the “Next Generation Internet Initiative”. The most prominent example this year is Mastodon, which has been fully embraced by the Commission, who have set up their own instance and funded the development of the social network. But also, many heavy-hitters in the open-source world who style themselves as decentralized alternatives to big-tech services: 

  • Office suites like Collabora Online and Libreoffice,
  • Cloud Storage software like Nextcloud,
  • Private, Client-side AI-enhanced Translation in Firefox,
  • Projects like Hybrix, which seek to bridge various blockchains and ledgers.

The Commission has also built the European Blockchain Services Infrastructure and test-driven numerous applications that could directly serve citizens.

Many of these projects have already provided tangible benefits to citizens and Europe’s public administrations for a relatively small initial investment.

As concerns about big tech, competitiveness, and strategic autonomy continue to grow, decentralisation has presented itself as one of the many solutions the EU can wield to “kill three birds with one stone”:

  • combating the dominance of a few actors by developing open, sovereign alternatives,
  • improving our competitiveness, developing software that respects EU values,
  • fostering strategic autonomy by guaranteeing control of governments over the applications they use, their data, and their infrastructure.

Europe is at a cross-roads, and we have two paths to choose from. We can go down the road of protectionism, focus on creating a market that will let companies bloom in Europe, but wither in the wider world; or we can go down the road of investment, where we foster good ideas that respect our values, give them clear simple rules to follow, then let them grow and compete not just in Europe, but in the wider world.

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