Discussion Paper

The Blueprint for a New Government Agency

| July 06, 2023


Digital platforms have far-reaching consequences on society, amplifying harms like mental health crises, radicalization, and polarization. The Democracy and Internet Governance Initiative has conducted extensive research behind how these platforms contribute to such harms.[1] With the rapid emergence of new technologies like generative artificial intelligence, which could introduce further challenges to consumers, the need for decisive action has never been more urgent. This raises the question: how should society respond to these challenges?

Historical precedent demonstrates the effectiveness of self-regulation and proves that industries can successfully establish standards to guide the development of their products, under the right conditions. This is exemplified by the pharmaceutical industry’s formation of the United States Pharmacopeia in 1820.[2] However, for these standards to be effectively enforced and broadly adopted, government oversight is essential.[3]

This is because industry leaders face a dilemma. While leaders may be inclined to adopt standards that align with their values, and even collaborate with competitors to reduce their impact on society, they may be concerned that adhering to such standards could diminish their platform’s competitiveness. To overcome this challenge, leaders require assurance that their competitors will also comply with agreed-upon standards before committing to them. This is where the role of a government watchdog becomes indispensable. By enforcing industry standards and imposing penalties on those who deviate from agreed-upon norms, the government can instill trust and confidence in the system. This ensures that all participants have faith in the fairness and integrity of the regulatory framework, promoting a level playing field and encouraging widespread adoption of responsible practices throughout the digital services industry.

This document presents a comprehensive blueprint for the establishment of a federal watchdog within the U.S. government, tasked with overseeing the digital services industry and enforcing standards as they are developed. The concept of a digital services-specific watchdog is not completely new; other experts have championed the idea of establishing a regulatory body to oversee digital platforms.[4] In fact, in May 2023, U.S. Senator Michael Bennet and U.S. Senator Peter Welch (D-Vt.) introduced the Digital Platform Commission Act, the first-ever legislation in Congress to create an expert federal agency to provide comprehensive regulation of digital platforms to protect consumers, promote competition, and defend the public interest.[5] However, this blueprint is presented within the context of the larger insights and findings from Democracy and Internet Governance, as summarized in its final report Digital Platforms and Public Purpose,[6] and aims to address questions of execution.

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[1] Schultz, J., Laxer, R., et al. (2023, June). The Drivers of Platform Harm. Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School. Retrieved from https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/drivers-platform-harm

[2] (2020, January 6). United States Pharmacopeia Celebrates 200 Years of Building Trust in Medicines, Supplements and Foods. United States Pharmacopeia (USP). Retrieved from https://www.usp.org/news/usp-celebrates-200-years-of-building-trust-in-…

[3] Jayanti, A. (2023, April). To Break the Standstill of Social Media Governance, We Need Industry Standards. Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School. Retrieved from https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/break-standstill-social-media-…

[4] Wheeler, T., Verveer, P., Kimmelman, G. (2020, August 20). New Digital Realities; New Oversight Solutions. Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School. Retrieved from https://shorensteincenter.org/new-digital-realities-tom-wheeler-phil-ve…

[5] (2023, May 18). Bennet, Welch Reintroduce Landmark Legislation to Establish Federal Commission to Oversee Digital Platforms. Office of Senator Michael Bennett. Retrieved from https://www.bennet.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/2023/5/bennet-welch-rein…

[6] Democracy and Internet Governance Initiative. (2023, June 30). Towards Digital Platforms and Public Purpose. Harvard Kennedy School.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

"The Blueprint for a New Government Agency."  Paper, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School. July 6, 2023.

The Authors