Every December, the Alliance for Securing Democracy team tries to take a step back and look at the foreign interference landscape, and to take stock of where new laws and policies would have the greatest impact at strengthening our institutions from foreign interference and protecting our values. This effort is more important than ever this year, as the change of administration offers new opportunities to take action on a wide range of issues. We asked our experts to each put forth one recommendation that would make the United States, and the community of liberal democracies to which it belongs, safer, stronger, and freer. The breadth of the responses presents a wide range of domains in which progress can be made, while also illustrating the hydra-headed nature of the foreign interference threat.

Hardwiring Values into Technology Policy

Jessica Brandt, Head of Policy and Research

Technology might be one of the most intense domains of geopolitical competition today, and it has implications for the emerging contest between democracies and autocracies. Although technology policy considerations are central to domestic, economic, national security, and foreign policy debates, the United States government lacks a mechanism to sufficiently integrate them. To improve its competitive footing, this should change. To that end, the next administration should establish a structure within the Executive Office of the President with a senior official to coordinate technology policy across issue areas. A technology directorate at the National Security Council, with directors jointly appointed by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, could significantly improve interagency coordination.

Lindsay Gorman, Emerging Technologies Fellow

Companies and research institutions in democracies, including the United States, have inadvertently abetted the Chinese surveillance state, including facilitating human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The international tech community can help guide the ethical application of its developments through export controls. U.S.-based research-and-development organizations should perform due diligence on partnerships with companies based in authoritarian states to assess their connection to surveillance regimes. Facial recognition is a good place to start. The industry needs to establish global standards for appropriate applications—use that respects human rights and the rule of law. For example, Microsoft’s “principles for facial recognition,”—fairness, transparency, accountability, nondiscrimination, notice and consent, and lawful surveillance—are sound.

Building Resilience into U.S. Institutions

Bryce Barros, China Affairs Analyst

To ensure that critical infrastructure is properly protected, the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice should prioritize identifying and supporting private entities that will be responsible for “systemically important critical infrastructure.” This can provide a layered cyber deterrent against authoritarian actors like China, per the Cyberspace Solarium Commission’s recommendation.

As the Commission’s final report pointed out, the defense of critical infrastructure cannot fall solely on the shoulders of the U.S. government due to resource and capability limitations. Thus, the Department of Homeland Security should prioritize building stronger public-private collaboration to share the information required to provide better cyber threat situational awareness for both sectors. A comprehensive review of U.S. government cyber defense capabilities should be conducted so that public and private sector resources can be allocated efficiently. Existing frameworks and organizations can facilitate this, including the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency’s (CISA) proposed volunteer National Emergency Technology Guard Corps and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s InfraGard public-private non-profit partnership.

Ensuring that private entities are responsible for critical infrastructure and properly supported in that role provides a layered cyber deterrent that begins to address growing systemic cyber threats from authoritarian actors.

David Levine, Elections Integrity Fellow

To help overcome significant partisan divisions over the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election results, shortly after assuming office, President-elect Biden should establish by executive order a Presidential Commission on Election Security (PCES) to identify best practices in election integrity and make recommendations to help ensure trustworthy future elections. Like President Obama’s 2013 Presidential Commission on Election Administration, distinguished leaders who bring bipartisan credentials should comprise the PCES. The PCES should include election administrators, media experts, and leaders across the political spectrum whose experience in the private and public sectors will help identify best practices in election security.

The Commission should seek to identify three kinds of best practices: 1) any additional election administration practices that could help ensure voter confidence in election outcomes, regardless of who wins; 2) best practices for countering mis- and disinformation from bad actors, both foreign and domestic, who seek to undermine confidence in the integrity of an election; and 3) best practices for helping Americans both access and believe trusted sources of information.

The PCES should ultimately present Mr. Biden with a series of recommendations designed to help election officials, members of the news media, civic leaders, social media platforms, and others improve voters’ confidence in U.S. elections.

Josh Rudolph, Fellow for Malign Finance 

With the incoming Biden administration signaling that one of its top policy priorities will be combating corruption and kleptocracy—including making it a central issue at the Summit for Democracy—the Treasury Department should start preparing a raft of powerful anti-corruption regulations that have been recommended for many years by financial enforcers, multilateral standard-setting bodies, and anti-corruption watchdogs. Concurrently, U.S. diplomats should leverage those plans to insist that countries attending the Summit for Democracy make similarly hard commitments, setting a high bar for admission.

Specifically, Treasury’s regulatory approach to tackling corruption should expand the anti-money laundering regime to cover professional service providers (requiring real estate agents, hedge fund managers, attorneys, and others to identify their ultimate customer and alert Treasury of suspicious activity, just as is required of U.S. banks), create a cross-border payments database, and make financial institutions scrutinize politicians’ accounts more closely. Treasury should work with Congress to make a major investment in the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, which struggles to fully utilize and secure existing data, and (assuming the current 2021 NDAA bill becomes law) must now also track beneficial ownership.

Treasury’s under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence should appoint a counselor with a small staff dedicated to developing and advancing anti-corruption initiatives, from bolstering anti-money laundering to prioritizing the threats of strategic corruption and malign finance across Treasury’s policy, intelligence, and enforcement efforts.

David Salvo, Deputy Director

The Biden administration should appoint a senior-level Foreign Interference Coordinator at the National Security Council (NSC) to develop policy responses across government to defend against authoritarian regimes’ operations to undermine democracy. Establishing this position at the NSC would give it the gravitas of working directly for the President and would ensure it has all the authorities to task government agencies and coordinate among them.

Foreign efforts to undermine democracy have at times taken advantage of siloed nature of the federal bureaucracy. Homeland Security, State, the Pentagon, Treasury, and the Intelligence Community, among others, all have key roles to play in pushing back against pernicious attempts to destabilize democratic institutions and further polarize our society—not to mention the essential part state and local governments play in securing elections from interference. A Foreign Interference Coordinator would also need to establish strong ties with the private sector—including the social media platforms and companies that manage our nation’s critical infrastructure, civil society organizations, and like-minded governments—in order to involve all key stakeholders in an effective national strategy to protect our democratic institutions and processes.

Taking On Disinformation

Bradley Hanlon, Program Manager and Analyst

The standing up of the Social Media and Data Threat Analysis Center presents a tremendous opportunity to boost cross-sector coordination in the information space for the sake of countering harmful mis- and disinformation—if it is organized correctly. The Center should base its structure on civil society initiatives pioneered ahead of the 2020 election like the Election Integrity Partnership.

Firstly, the Center should be housed outside of government as a separate, independent, non-profit organization. To solidify this separation, funding responsibility for the Center should be shifted from the Director of National Intelligence to CISA, which similarly supports the Election Infrastructure ISAC and maintains strong working relationships with both the private sector and civil society. The Center should also be staffed and operated by civil society actors. Government liaisons will be necessary to facilitate information sharing and cooperation, but the government has a limited role to play in the information space and should not seek to supplant the role played by civil society.

Moreover, the Center should build on the models pioneered by civil society to serve not only as a coordination mechanism for researchers, platform companies, and government, but also to take an active role in identifying, tracking, and flagging harmful disinformation for company action. This effort should not be limited to elections and should aim to target mis- and disinformation narratives and actors that most threaten our democracy and citizens’ wellbeing.

Bret Schafer, Media and Digital Disinformation Fellow

Congress must take steps to address the monetization of disinformation by passing legislation mandating disclosure requirements for digital ad networks. Opacity in the ad ecosystem leads to enormous amounts of digital ad fraud, harming legitimate business while helping to finance a range of malign activities from cyber hacking to targeted disinformation campaigns. This vector of disinformation is the byproduct of an enormously complicated online advertising ecosystem that obfuscates the money trail from advertisers to publishers, meaning advertisers and ad buyers do not necessarily know where their programmatic ads are placed. This means that reputable brands, advocacy groups, and even political campaigns are often the unwitting financial supporters of state-directed propaganda, extremist sites, and disinformation outlets that can degrade democracy and potentially threaten national security.

By mandating that companies involved in the placement of programmatic ads (ads that are bought and sold through automated processes) provide advertisers with detailed disclosure reports identifying publishers (site IDs) served by their ad buys, Congress would make the advertising market more transparent and efficient while also erecting a major to the spread of state-sponsored disinformation. Moreover, aggregated and anonymized public disclosure requirements of ad purchases should be required of AdTech firms, similar to the SEC’s quarterly reporting framework.

Concerted Action with Allies and Partners

Kristine Berzina, Senior Fellow

The Biden administration should work with the European Union to establish a regular format to address technology and digital policy challenges at both the highest and operational levels. A U.S.-EU technology and digital policy council should include meetings between the Secretaries of State and Commerce and EU counterparts, including Executive Vice Presidents Dombrovskis and Vestager, Commissioner Breton, and High Representative Borrell. Additional working groups on sub-issues (including privacy, taxation, political advertising, 5G, and AI) should meet on a regular basis, bringing together European Commission and U.S. administration officials on the working level. A parallel process between Congress and the European Parliament would be a welcome. 

The EU has a head start on digital policy, from setting the stage globally on the privacy legislation and, in 2020, proposing new regulations on tech giants to address their role in spreading harmful disinformation, lack of algorithmic transparency, lack of transparency in political advertising, and role in distorting innovation and competition for smaller players. The EU and U.S. need to see eye-to-eye on these crucial elements of digital policy in order to be able to have a stronger, aligned policy on tackling the authoritarians who misuse technology and platforms for their own good and to weaken democracies. The EU has proposed a common format for working on these issues. The Biden administration should accept this invitation and work to engage the Europeans and shape the scope and dimensions of a joint council to include additional elements that are of high importance to the United States. Misalignment between the EU and U.S. on digital issues will provide an opportunity for China and Russia to deepen transatlantic fissures.

Nad’a Kovalčíková, Program Manager and Fellow

Countering disinformation and its amplification is included as a key dimension in the recently adopted European Democracy Action Plan (EDAP), complemented by the EU’s Digital Services Act (DSA), and represents an area in which cooperation among democracies will be essential. In order to improve the information ecosystem globally, the new U.S. administration should join forces with the European Commission and the European External Action Service to address the amplification of disinformation and other manipulated narratives across the social media platforms and consider adopting an American Democracy Action Plan.

A welcome first step would be to invite one or more of the EU Commissioners (Věra Jourová, Margrethe Vestager, or Thierry Breton) who led the EDAP and DSA efforts to President-elect Biden’s Summit for Democracy, along with a high-level representative from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), to develop a plan of action for furthering transatlantic cooperation in this space. Specifically, such a summit could be used to discuss a potential establishment of a Center of Excellence for Democratic Resilience, a proposed institution that emerged from one of the recent inputs for the NATO 2030 review process.

The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.