Artificial Intelligence Cybersecurity Digital Policy Economy & Business Internet Technology & Innovation
Fintech Frontlines June 14, 2024

Designing a blueprint for open, free and trustworthy digital economies

By Carole House

More than half a century into the information age, it is clear how policy has shaped the digital world. The internet has enabled world-changing innovation, commercial developments, and economic growth through a global and interoperable infrastructure. However, the internet is also home to rampant fraud, misinformation, and criminal exploitation. To shape policy and technology to address these challenges in the next generation of digital infrastructure, policymakers must confront two complex issues: the difficulty of massively scaling technologies and the growing fragmentation across technological and economic systems.

How today’s policymakers decide to balance freedom and security in the digital landscape will have massive consequences for the future. US digital policy must be aimed at improving national security, defending human freedom, dignity, and economic growth while ensuring necessary accountability for the integrity of the technological bedrock.

Digital economy building blocks and the need for strategic alignment

Digital policymakers face a host of complex issues, such as regulating and securing artificial intelligence, banning or transitioning ownership of TikTok, combating pervasive fraud, addressing malign influence and interference in democratic processes, considering updates to Section 230 and impacts on tech platforms, and implementing zero-trust security architectures. When addressing these issues, policymakers must keep these core building blocks of the digital economy front and center:

  • Infrastructure: How to provide the structure, rails, processes, standards, and technologies for critical societal functions;
  • Data: How to protect, manage, own, use, share, and destroy open and sensitive data; and
  • Identity: How to represent and facilitate trust and interactions across people, entities, data, and devices.

How to approach accountability—who is responsible for what—in each of these pillars sets the stage for how future digital systems will or will not be secure, competitive, and equitable.

Achieving the right balance between openness and security is not easy, and the stakes for both personal liberty and national security amid geostrategic competition are high. The open accessibility of information, infrastructure, and markets enabled by the internet all bring knowledge diffusion, data flows, and higher order economic developments, which are critical for international trade and investment.

However, vulnerabilities in existing digital ecosystems contribute significantly to economic losses, such as the estimated $600 billion per year lost to intellectual property theft and the $8 trillion in global costs last year from cybercrime. Apart from direct economic costs, growing digital authoritarianism threatens undesirable censorship, surveillance, and manipulation of foreign and domestic societies that could not only undermine democracy but also reverse the economic benefits wrought from democratization.

As the United States pursues its commitment with partner nations toward an open, free, secure internet, Washington must operationalize that commitment into specific policy and technological implementations coordinated across the digital economy building blocks. It is critical to shape them to strengthen their integrity while preventing undesired fragmentation, which could hinder objectives for openness and innovation.


The underlying infrastructure and technologies that define how consumers and businesses get access to and can use information are featured in ongoing debates and policymaking, which has led to heightened bipartisan calls for accountability across platform operators. Further complicating the landscape of accountability in infrastructure are the growing decentralization and aggregation of historically siloed functions and systems. As demonstrated by calls for decentralizing the banking system or blockchain-based decentralized networks underlying cryptocurrencies, there is an increasing interest from policymakers and industry leaders to drive away from concentration risks and inequity that can be at risk in overly centralized systems.

However, increasing decentralization can lead to a lack of clear lines of responsibility and accountability in the system. Accountability and neutrality policy are also impacted by increasing digital interconnectedness and the commingling of functions. The Bank of the International Settlement recently coined a term, “finternet,” to describe the vision of an exciting but complexly interconnected digital financial system that must navigate international authorities, sovereignty, and regulatory applicability in systems that operate around the world.

With this tech and policy landscape in mind, infrastructure policy should focus on two aspects:

  • Ensuring infrastructure security, integrity, and openness. Policymakers and civil society need to articulate and test a clear vision for stakeholders to coordinate on what openness and security across digital infrastructure for cross-economic purposes should look like based on impacts to national security, economic security, and democratic objectives. This would outline elements such as infrastructure ecosystem participants, the degree of openness, and where points for responsibility of controls should be, whether through voluntary or enforceable means. This vision would build on ongoing Biden administration efforts and provide a north star for strategic coordination with legislators, regulators, industry, civil society, and international partners to move in a common direction.
  • Addressing decentralization and the commingling of infrastructure. Technologists must come together with policymakers to ensure that features for governance and security are fit for purpose and integrated early in decentralized systems, as well as able to oversee and ensure compliance for any regulated, high-risk activity.


Data has been called the new oil, the new gold, and the new oxygen. Perhaps overstated, each description nonetheless captures what is already the case: Data is incredibly valuable in digital economies. US policymakers should focus on how to surround how to address the privacy, control, and integrity of data, the fundamental assets of value in information economies.

Privacy is a critical area to get right in the collection and management of information. The US privacy framework is fragmented and generally use-specific, framed for high risk sectors like finance and healthcare. In the absence of a federal-government-wide consumer data privacy law, some states are implementing their own approaches. In light of existing international data privacy laws, US policy also has to account for issues surrounding harmonization and potential economic hindrances brought by data localization.

Beyond just control of privacy and disclosure, many tech entrepreneurs, legislators, and federal agencies are aimed at placing greater ownership of data and subsequent use in the hands of consumers. Other efforts supporting privacy and other national and economic security concerns are geared toward protecting against the control and ownership of sensitive data by adversarial nations or anti-competitive actors, including regulations on data brokers and the recent divest-or-ban legislation targeted at TikTok.

There is also significant policy interest surrounding the integrity of information and the systems reliant on it, such as in combating the manipulation of data underlying AI systems and protecting electoral processes that could be vulnerable to disinformation. Standards and research are rising, focused on data provenance and integrity techniques. But there remain barriers to getting the issue of data integrity right in the digital age.

While there is some momentum for combating data integrity compromise, doing so is rife with challenges of implementation and preserving freedom of expression that have to be addressed to achieve the needed balance of security and freedom:

  • Balancing data security, discoverability, and privacy. Stakeholders across various key functions of law enforcement, regulation, civil society, and industry must together define what type of information should be discoverable by whom and under what conditions, guided by democratic principles, privacy frameworks, the rule of law, and consumer and national security interests. This would shape the technical standards and requirements for privacy tech and governance models that government and industry can put into effect.
  • Preserving consumer and democratic control and ownership of data. Placing greater control and localization protections around consumer data could bring great benefits to user privacy but must also be done in consideration of the economic impacts and higher order innovations enabled from the free flow and aggregation of data. Policy efforts could pursue research and experimentation for assessing the value of data
  • Combating manipulation and protecting information integrity. Governments must work hand in hand with civil society and, where appropriate, media organizations to pursue policies and technical developments that could contribute to promoting trust in democratic public institutions and help identify misinformation across platforms, especially in high-risk areas to societies and democracies such as election messaging, financial services and markets, and healthcare.


Talk about “identity” can trigger concerns of social credit scores and Black Mirror episodes. It may, for example, evoke a sense of state surveillance, criminal anonymity, fraud, voter and political dissident suppression, disenfranchisement of marginalized populations, or even the mundane experience of waiting in line at a department of motor vehicles. As a force for good, identity enables critical access to goods and services for consumers, helps provide recourse for victims of fraud and those seeking public benefits, and protects sensitive information while providing necessary insights to authorities and regulated institutions to hold bad actors accountable. With increasing reliance on digital infrastructure, government and industry will have to partner to create the technical and policy fabric for secure, trustworthy, and interoperable digital identity.

Digital identity is a critical element of digital public infrastructure (DPI). The United States joined the Group of Twenty (G20) leaders in committing to pursue work on secure, interoperable digital identity tools and emphasized its importance in international fora to combat illicit finance. However, while many international efforts have taken root to establish digital identity systems abroad, progress by the United States on holistic domestic or cross-border digital identity frameworks has been limited. Identity security is crucial to establish trust in US systems, including the US financial sector and US public institutions. While the Biden administration has been driving some efforts to strengthen identity, the democratized access to sophisticatedAI tools increased the threat environment significantly by making it easy to create fraudulent credentials and deepfakes that circumvent many current counter-fraud measures.

The government is well-positioned to be the key driver of investments in identity that would create the underlying fabric for trust in digital communications and commerce:

  • Investing in identity as digital public infrastructure. Digital identity development and expansion can unlock massive societal and economic benefits, including driving value up to 13 percent of a nation’s gross domestic product and providing access to critical goods and services, as well as the ability to vote, engage in the financial sector, and own land. Identity itself can serve as infrastructure for higher-order e-commerce applications that rely on trust. The United States should invest in secure, interoperable digital identity infrastructure domestically and overseas, to include the provision of secure verifiable credentials and privacy-preserving attribute validation services.
  • Managing security, privacy, and equity in Identity. Policymakers must work with industry to ensure that identity systems, processes, and regulatory requirements implement appropriate controls in full view of all desired outcomes across security, privacy, and equity, consistent with National Institute of Science and Technology standards. Policies should ensure that saving resources by implementing digital identity systems also help to improve services for those not able to use them.

Technology by itself is not inherently good or evil—its benefits and risks are specific to the technological, operational, and governance implementations driven by people and businesses. This outline of emerging policy efforts affecting digital economy building blocks may help policymakers and industry leaders consider efforts needed to drive alignment to preserve the benefits of a global, interoperable, secure and free internet while addressing the key shortfalls present in the current digital landscape.

Carole House is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council GeoEconomics Center and the Executive in Residence at Terranet Ventures, Inc. She formerly served as the director for cybersecurity and secure digital innovation for the White House National Security Council, where Carole will soon be returning as the Special Advisor for Cybersecurity and Critical Infrastructure Policy. This article reflects views expressed by the author in her personal capacity.

Further reading

Image: Crowds of people in futuristic city, 3D generated image.