Cédric O, France’s former minister of state for digital, has been an advocate of Europe’s approach to tech and at the forefront of the continent’s relations with U.S. giants. Protocol caught up with O last week at a conference in New York focusing on social media’s negative effects on society and the possibilities of blockchain-based protocols for alternative networks.
O said watching the U.S. lag in tech policy — even as some states pass their own measures and federal bills gain momentum — has made him worry about the EU and U.S. decoupling. While not as drastic as a disentangling of economic fortunes between the West and China, such a divergence, as O describes it, could still make it functionally impossible for companies to serve users on both sides of the Atlantic with the same product.
He also weighed in on whether the risk of decoupling would slow Europe down in its regulation, what might be next in the EU, the continent’s confusion in the face of U.S. state laws, the importance of democracy, and, of course, the possibilities of Web3.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
We know Europe is ahead on regulating tech and the U.S. is behind. But do you think that the U.S. is catching up in any way?
We usually think of decoupling between the U.S. and China. One thing that struck me when I was heading the digital policy of France is, with Europe piling up legislation — GDPR, DSA, DMA, MiCA, cryptocurrency, AI Act — the legal framework, which has day-to-day impact on the way applications are working, on the way protocols are designed, is widening between the U.S. and the EU. We began to do that with cloud infrastructure in the Schrems II decision.
With the difficulty of the U.S. in finding political agreement or political basis to legislate more, we are facing a risk of decoupling in the long term between the EU and the U.S. as far as the web is concerned. If one day comes where the applications, the social networks, that you’re running in Europe cannot be the same as the ones that you’re running in the U.S., then it’s de facto a decoupling.
Do you see that becoming pretty likely, or are you saying it’s possible?
I would say it’s possible in the next five to 10 years. Nobody wants that, but on the other hand, I don’t see things that will trigger a different approach by the U.S. And I see Europe will only deepen its regulation. So the jury’s still out.
Do you think that possibility gives Europe any pause about proceeding?
As far as I’m concerned, we need more regulation. So if the price to pay is to have a different framework in the U.S. and the EU, I would go for that.
That’s a common view in Europe?
What are the next priorities in the European approach to tech?
First, the most urgent thing to do is to enforce. The DSA and DMA might be two of the most important texts of the history of the web, in terms of regulation.
How optimistic are you that things like the DSA will start to move us away from some of the worst consequences of social media on the social fabric?
I’m very optimistic. But it will be a fight because legislators and regulators need knowledge, need experience, need tools, need networks with civil society. This will take months and years, and companies will go to court. But at least we have a theoretical basis for a reset.
What is the European view on state-level regulation here in the U.S., particularly in California?
It’s not so easy, from a European point of view, to distinguish between what American states can do and the federal level can do, and to what extent the fact some states are moving faster than the federal level will create a new level playing field. But what’s interesting as far as, for instance, GDPR is concerned is that Europe is setting the tone not only for some U.S. states but also the rest of the world. When I was in Korea, Japan, South America, everybody is looking at that. So I think the more [policy] alliances that we can build, the better this is.
What do you tell American lawmakers, regulators, and scholars when you talk to them?
I want to avoid Europe lecturing Americans about what they have to do or don’t have to. I mean, these are all democratic choices. Europe is right in insisting that it has the right to impose its democratic choices for its citizens and that, even if there is an American company that is a very innovative and cool company, it has no way to compare to the fact that there is a democratic choice that has been made.
It was pretty striking to me how often some companies thought they were more in charge of general interests than democratically elected governments. I think this is completely absurd. That’s completely insane. And that’s even dangerous. But I think the Americans have to make a choice, from a democratic point of view, and they have a different history in terms of free speech recognition and defense. And by the way, Europe is not unified when it comes to those issues. So [what I would say] depends on who I was talking to, but what’s interesting is that part of the inspiration of the European legislation is coming out of American researchers, American scholars. I still think that the edge of that research is done in the U.S. — at Stanford, MIT, Harvard, and places like that. So the problem is not a problem of conceptual approach. But at the end of the day, I think that even if it seems that democratic institutions are not acting as efficiently as they could, maybe as [efficiently as] they should, they are still to be a solution to go with. It should be, at the end of the day, an American choice.
Is Web3 the solution to all this?
I think Web3 is offering a very interesting approach. So far we have been having a vertical approach: “Okay, we have to tackle content regulation, competition policy, privacy, AI.” Web3 is rethinking the way the whole protocol works. What I don’t believe is that there are technical solutions to democratic issues. I think there are democratic solutions that need technical tools, and I can be very enthusiastic on what Web3 could offer to solve a part of the problem of the Web2[.0] protocols, but there are a lot of questions that need to be tackled.
There are technical questions. There are questions of concentration. It’s not obvious that Web3 is fully decentralized. I mean, major miners and currencies are limited. So I think the most important answer is a democratic answer. Web3 might be offering us a way to reset the way democratic institutions are working and regulate the web. But if Web3 [proponents] are thinking we are going to, like, end governments, end the Fed, end the central banks? No way. I don’t believe in that for one second. I think Web3 is very interesting without too much ideology. I still believe that people trust the Fed more than protocols. Otherwise the dollar would not be so important in the world. Early adopters might prefer protocols, but if you want mass adoption, you still need institutions — and you still need democratic institutions.