Keys to a Healthier Digital Future: Interoperability, Open Protocols, and Tech Governance

Illustration of a man interacting with mobile digital interface elements.
April 30, 2024


Ford Foundation, Microsoft, and the Digital Impact and Governance Initiative at New America, in collaboration with dozens of stakeholders, focused on identifying the conditions for better, healthier, more secure digital ecosystems to guide the next generation of open protocols and platforms. The working group acknowledges the essential role of digital technology in knowledge sharing, innovation, and economic progress, while also recognizing its contribution to inequality, human rights violations, and systemic instability.

Our belief is that the design, development, and implementation of the digital tools at the core of our online lives must respect rights, foster innovation, be open and secure, and enacted in the public interest. Elevating interoperability, open protocols, and tech governance could contribute toward a more positive global digital future.

We focused on four critical layers in digital services that are integral to advancing technology developed in the public interest: identity control and verification, to empower individuals with secure digital identity management; data sharing, to emphasize privacy and control over personal data; open communication, to ensure the right to freely communicate and associate in the digital realm while respecting rights and legal frameworks; and exchange of payments, to streamline and secure digital financial transactions.

A great deal of collaborative work and aligning of incentives is required to realize a healthier and more inclusive digital development ecosystem. Global efforts to wrangle tech governance issues persist, but are increasingly fragmented. The good news is that increased global awareness and a better understanding of the implications and unintended consequences of digital technologies are giving rise to many efforts to shape a healthier, more sustainable, and just future. But no one leader, organization, government, or even sector can take on this challenge effectively.

This research brief summarizes the ideas and recommendations we explored through roundtables and research efforts with the goal of breaking down silos across technology and policy stakeholders.

Introduction: The Missing Layers Collaborative

Over the past two years, Ford Foundation, Microsoft, and the Digital Impact and Governance Initiative at New America have collaborated with dozens of cross-sector stakeholders within the technology ecosystem to identify conditions for better, healthier, more secure digital ecosystems that could help guide the next generation of open protocols and platforms. Technology systems, protocols, and platforms increasingly govern life online. We believe that models for these systems must be designed, built, and implemented in ways that respect rights and are open, more secure, and implemented in the public interest.

We started with two guiding questions:

  1. How can civil society and the private sector work together toward better, healthier, more secure digital ecosystems in the public interest?
  2. Can we align on a substantive and critical research area for cross-sector collaboration on open protocols and our digital future?

The working group broadly agrees that although digital technology solutions are essential tools for knowledge sharing, innovation, and economic progress, they also contribute to inequality, human rights violations, and systemic instability. Our collaborative also recognizes that many of the serious efforts underway across sectors and democracies to take on these challenges are often fragmented by geography, siloed by sector, or in tension with each other, hampering progress. In response, the group sought ways to explore and pursue a digital future that could bridge these divides.

We drew inspiration from the fact that the internet didn’t have a sole creator and evolved with time. The intentions of the internet’s early developers and designers rested in their desire to establish a system that could be interoperable, collectively governed, and formulated to avoid gatekeeper control. However, in the race for commercial development, this vision for the internet was not fulfilled. Today, key functions such as identity and data exchange are largely controlled by proprietary platforms, leading to a lack of competition and trust.

Relying solely on the private sector for specific technologies that could be considered essential public goods without sufficient oversight or input from civil society and other partners creates a dynamic that underserves the vast majority of internet users. In the search for common ground, we centered our exploration on interoperability and multistakeholder governance models. We pursued the hypothesis that better standards, protocols, and governance models could improve the design and implementation of technology in the public interest. The group focused on four “missing layers” that are essential digital services.

  1. Identity Control and Verification: This layer concentrates on providing individuals with the ability to own, control, and transfer a secure digital identity or credentials according to the user’s needs. It simplifies processes, lowers costs, and enhances the reliability of identity verification across different platforms and services.
  2. Trust in Data Sharing: This layer underscores the importance of privacy and control over personal data. It enables individuals to have increased transparency and control over when and how their personal information is used and exchanged, enhancing trust in data sharing practices.
  3. Open Communication: At the heart of this layer is the right to communicate and associate freely in a digital environment, respecting fundamental rights and legal frameworks. It empowers individuals with the freedom to move between services and reduces barriers in switching providers, fostering a more open and competitive digital space.
  4. Exchange of Payment: This layer facilitates secure, convenient, and cost-effective financial transactions, including peer-to-peer exchanges. It aims to make digital payments more accessible and efficient for individuals, reducing complexities and costs associated with digital transactions.

The collaborative sought to envision an interoperable, people-centric, collectively governed digital ecosystem within and across these layers, underpinned by shared values for a more sustainable and equitable digital future. We spent the past year engaging in qualitative research, facilitated feedback opportunities, and dynamic roundtables with other leading organizations in the tech-policy ecosystem and technology practitioners to identify best practices, perceived gaps in the field, and opportunities for collaboration. Our hosted roundtable discussions included practitioners and funders across a spectrum of fields, including the private sector, civil society and academia.

On May 23, 2023, in collaboration with experts and stakeholders, we conducted a roundtable to further our understanding and development of interoperability frameworks, focusing on cross-sector approaches, technical solutions, and governance models. Participants advocated for a more people-centric approach, stressing the importance of a rights-based approach to interoperability and incentives, and suggested focusing efforts on such areas as digital identities to achieve more tangible outcomes.

Complementing the U.S.-based roundtable, the critical infrastructure lab at the University of Amsterdam and the Open Future Foundation convened a workshop on June 20, 2023, to explore interoperability and sovereignty within digital ecosystems. Aimed at discussing policies conducive to a people-centric digital commons, the “Standards, Protocols, Ecosystems” event engaged experts in a rich dialogue on aligning governance mechanisms with legislative measures, particularly through a European lens.

This research brief is a summary of our collective findings and recommendations based on broad agreement that greater research and funding support on interoperability and tech governance models is needed. We recognize that our ambitious goals, which build upon decades of work by many global, technical, and policy experts will be a long-term endeavor.


The working group landed on the following three complementary conclusions. We believe it would be most effective if all three are advanced in parallel.

1. More extensive research, resources, and leadership are needed to develop an interoperability framework and better multistakeholder governance models.

Our discussions confirmed interest that spans sectors in collaborative co-design models and the development of standards, governance models, or actual technologies that not only advance innovation but also protect fundamental values, human rights, public health, localism, user choice, and market competition.

However, there are few, if any, efforts to map, compare, and sustainably elevate existing and potential interoperable solutions. (As an initial step, the collaborative sought to roughly define and classify different technical approaches to interoperability, which we outline below.)

Further, the current ecosystem lacks robust institutional support to empower a growing community of builders interested in innovating toward a digital future that is more open and governed in the public interest. The surge and subsequent falloff in users from new social platforms poses additional barriers to developing systems that allow users to freely interact and create content without intermediaries or platform dependencies. And although many governments and groups are developing approaches to encourage interoperability, most of these have a primary focus on regulation, including European Union laws that require it.

The governance processes and standard setting for these interoperable technology layers are critically important to their viability and impact on the public interest. Our work with the University of Amsterdam’s critical infrastructure lab sought to explore the standards and governance processes of internet infrastructure, though further research is needed to explore governance models, identify the decision-makers in the different forums that influence critical technology layers, and develop recommendations to strengthen existing standard bodies.

2. Identity verification, data sharing, communication, and payments are the most impactful testing grounds to apply interoperability approaches and governance models.

These four layers support most online applications and are essential to economic mobility and daily digital life across all sectors. If advanced in a thoughtful way, they could be foundational to our digital future. But all four domains lack an open and consistent approach; they need interoperability standards and people-centered governance models.

These standards and protocols could support digital public infrastructure, help governments improve services, empower a more vibrant civil and social sector, and enable competition and innovation. They could be supported by robust regulation guaranteeing privacy, requiring interoperability, enabling safe data sharing, and ensuring transparency.

However, although crucial to strengthen “do no harm” concepts, regulations are often insufficient without complementary efforts to create an inclusive digital ecosystem that enables and incentivizes collective action and innovation across borders. Parallel efforts to advance both the oversight environment and cross-sector collaboration could be a more effective and comprehensive approach to better people-centered outcomes.

A vibrant ecosystem of interoperability efforts already exists across the four critical layers. Figure 1 features a representative list of such projects along with the type of technological approach. We note that cross-sector support through financial and other means is critical to ensure that these types of efforts can be adopted where useful and can drive public interest impact.

3. Aligning interoperability and governance efforts across sectors and regions may yield the best people-centric outcomes.

Effective interoperability will require aligning efforts across various sectors and regions, including diverse stakeholder voices, and critically assessing the roles of different sectors to avoid overreliance on centralized governance. For instance, categorizing stakeholders by their specific roles, such as consumers, content producers, developers, and regulators, rather than by broad stakeholder groups may help to methodically pinpoint areas of friction and agreement. Such approaches may help ensure that the framework is not just technically sound but that it centers users’ needs and preferences.

Strengthening interoperability efforts is a global challenge that is not confined to any single country or region. The limited industry interest in adopting interoperability by design solutions, particularly in regions outside North America and Europe, highlights the need for more globally inclusive conversations and actions.

Cross-sector collaboration is essential but faces obstacles in developing clear paths and resources to support protocol-building communities, particularly concerning digital sovereignty issues. Effectively leveraging existing convening and collaboration spaces, including those with civil society practitioners, needs to be a priority. Additionally, there is a dire need for more forums that not only bring people together but also provide the necessary time and resources for meaningful exchange, learning, and consensus building.

Incentives are another challenge across all sectors. For example, large technology companies use open protocols and platforms to advance their profits, often deploying them as a sword if the company is trying to break into a market, or as a shield to protect the companies interests. Moreover, regulatory mandates such as the EU’s interoperability requirements, while necessary, merely set a baseline for compliance.

Achieving the full potential of interoperability necessitates integrating these mandates within a multistakeholder ecosystem. This approach encourages both compliance and a genuine commitment to interoperability, fostering a deeper collaboration across sectors.

In light of our findings, it’s critical to recognize that the full potential of these initiatives can be realized only in an ecosystem that supports and rewards voluntary, transformative, and collaborative efforts across sectors. An environment bolstered by robust oversight, competitive dynamics, and regulations that protect the public interest—similar to those that facilitated the early growth of the internet—is essential. Regulations that specifically incentivize interoperability and transparency will not only ensure a thriving digital ecosystem but will also foster a culture of collaboration across traditional boundaries. By embracing these principles, we can create a digital landscape that is both more responsive to the needs of all stakeholders and aligned with the public good.


Key recommendations for further exploration and collective action include gaps in interoperability and governance research, technical frameworks, and pathways to operationalize interoperability approaches that have the potential to strengthen public interest technology.

1. Develop an accessible interoperability framework designed with public interest orientation that could include mapping a range of technical approaches and weighing features against desired outcomes.

As a starting point, the collaborative began outlining how different technical approaches to interoperability might look. We started with an understanding of interoperability as the capacity for different systems, devices, applications, or products to connect, communicate, and exchange data in a coordinated way. We agree that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to enabling interoperability. It can take varying shapes, from approaches that open access to large platforms’ data and functions via APIs or middleware to open-source protocols that create alternative ecosystems, and many others. Interoperability models generally can be categorized into three approaches:

  • Single actor approach: This approach is centered on the platform level, where a single platform, company, or entity controls the interoperability according to its own specifications. While simple to implement, this approach often lacks governance, transparency, and functionality, and platforms generally have little incentive to adopt it. It can be further divided into:
    • Provider-specific data portability: Involves data export or streaming, including user data and metadata. An example is downloading personal data from Facebook.
    • Provider-specific function availability: Focuses on opening access to specific functions such as content moderation or security through APIs or code access. PayPal’s payments API is an example.
  • Interoperability by design: Unlike the Single Actor Approach, this method is independent of any particular platform and relies on standard protocols or middleware.
    • Technical protocols: These are technology-neutral codes developed by open, industry, or government standards bodies to enable interoperability. Examples include Messaging Layer Security (MLS), OAuth, and Estonia's X-Road.
    • Middleware: This acts as an intermediary to facilitate communication between existing platforms, bridging technological differences. Examples include Stripe Connect and IFTTT.
  • Decentralized architecture solutions: This approach involves creating interoperability through a network with distributed decision-making. While these solutions are often easier to develop, gaining user traction can be challenging. Examples include distributed, federated, and peer-to-peer networks such as ActivityPub for Mastodon and DSNP for Project Liberty.

Each of these approaches offers different methods and challenges for achieving interoperability in digital ecosystems. The field would benefit from a more extensive exercise to map and weigh these and other technical approaches against desired outcomes.

2. Address alignment of incentives for pursuing interoperability solutions.

  • The value proposition for different stakeholders to build toward shared prosperity and innovation should be demonstrated.
  • Developing a feasible interoperability framework will require articulating a narrative of incentives or business cases for different stakeholders to follow open protocols, whether aligned with financial interests, regulations, public demand, or design objectives. Protocols with strong incentives stand a greater chance of being implemented.
  • This exploration should consider both existing and new platforms, the use case of adversarial interoperability, and the importance of maintaining the right for actors to index, interoperate with, and research content that is publicly available

3. Encourage and incentivize a cross-sector ecosystem to help ensure that a framework remains flexible, responsive, and useful.

  • Empowering a regular and trusted review of open standards, protocols, and governance models around a clear interoperability framework will take time and resources. It necessitates the operational approach of a standard setting forum or institution focused on understanding the benefits and shortcomings of different interoperability protocols, as well as assessing the barriers to implementing the most promising technological approaches.
  • Engagement with key governance bodies such as IETF, ICANN, and IGF should be strengthened to coordinate global efforts in addressing digital disparities.
  • Pursuing a global consensus on protocols carries the risk of fragmented solutions as well as redundant or incompatible protocols. It is important to establish a framework for protocols that is not only robust but also flexible and adaptable, allowing for seamless adaptation in a growing digital landscape.
  • A collectively governed digital ecosystem must be underpinned by shared values for a more sustainable and equitable digital future. However, it is important to recognize that a framework approach anchored on human rights and democracy, or even framed as countering authoritarianism, may not have truly global appeal or relevance. A regional or bilateral approach that uses a bottom-up regional approach to a global one may be more successful.
  • Open channels should be established for cross-sector collaboration to include diverse global voices in the development of interoperability standards.
  • Government funding needs to be secured to create and support open protocols, fostering a digital ecosystem aligned with public interest.

4. Support user-centric governance models.

  • Effective, open, and iterative multistakeholder governance models must ensure global representation and represent a substantive effort to be inclusive of the perspective of end users.
  • Government-supported research focused on developing effective governance mechanisms for digital interoperability and standards should be facilitated.

5. Advocate for oversight and complementary efforts.

  • The EU’s experience suggests that regulating interoperability can be beneficial, highlighting the role of sovereign powers in shaping the ecosystem.
  • European policy has shown additional benefits as oversight decisions have spillover to other regions through leading by example, the entanglement of industrial processes, and research and development, as well as markets.
  • The ability of emerging technologies such as machine learning and generative AI must be examined to understand nuanced language and help find common ground. These technologies should be explored as governance technologies that can assist humans in the challenging task of community management and standards development.

Moving Forward: Additional Resources

Our tech landscape shifts quickly. New opportunities to deepen and expand the community working toward open protocols and standards have emerged as engagement around large data models and AI solutions increasingly are accessible to the public at large. This interest in AI and the dizzying pace of its development is an opportunity for all in the responsible tech space to engage in dialogues designed to strengthen a public interest approach to technology design, deployment, and management. Especially in light of the 2023 Executive Order on the Safe, Secure, and Trustworthy Development and Use of Artificial Intelligence, 2024 feels especially auspicious to collaborate on ethical choices surrounding the implementation of all digital solutions.

We also encourage researchers and practitioners to pursue opportunities offered by the Digital Infrastructure Insights Fund (D//F). The D//F is a multi-funder initiative by Ford Foundation, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Omidyar Network, Schmidt Futures and Open Collective supporting a platform for researchers and practitioners to better understand how open digital Infrastructure is built and deployed.

Our organizations will continue to engage and support public interest technologists from a variety of backgrounds and industries. We are interested in understanding the different perspectives represented at our roundtables, and we would like to push forward on realistic governance mechanisms that could yield better outcomes in the public interest and inspire competition and innovation.


The Missing Layers Collaborative was facilitated by a working group that includes Michelle Shevin with Ford Foundation; Jordan Usdan with Microsoft; Allison Price, Alberto Rodriguez, and Silvana Rodriguez with the Digital Impact and Governance Initiative; and Liv Kittel with Spitfire Strategies.

A note of thanks to the many public policy innovators who worked with us on versions of this research; attempting group writing may be the truest form of a collaboration. This work would not have come together without the leadership of Jenny Toomey with Ford Foundation and Cecilia Muñoz with New America. We would like to especially thank the teams with the critical infrastructure lab at the University of Amsterdam and the Open Future Foundation. Additionally, Chinmayi Sharma and Alex Rigby, formerly with the Robert Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas at Austin, helped with open protocol assessments. We are also thankful to the Office of the CTO at Microsoft as well as Tommy Jensen at Microsoft for supporting this project. Finally, Divya Siddarth, with the Collective Intelligence Project and formerly with Microsoft, was a driving force in this effort.

We look forward to continuing to work across the tech and democracy global community. Our work greatly benefited from the many public interest technologists who participated in our roundtables, debated our findings, and shared where they agree or disagree with our findings. The following individuals were invaluable to our process. (Note: The inclusion of their names below indicated their participation in research related activities with the collaboration, not an endorsement of our research.)

  • Stan Adams, Wikimedia
  • Adeboye Adegoke, Paradigm Initiative
  • Dietrich Ayala, Protocol Labs
  • Andreas Baur, Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research, International Centre for Ethics in the Sciences and Humanities
  • Andrew Bennett, Disney
  • John Bergmayer, Public Knowledge
  • Robin Berjon, Protocol Labs
  • Michael Brennan, Ford Foundation
  • Ian Brown, Fundação Getulio Vargas
  • Corinne Cath, critical infrastructure lab
  • Alberto Cerda Silva, formerly with Ford Foundation
  • Ross Creelman, European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association
  • Bertrand de La Chapelle, Datasphere Initiative
  • Constance de Leusse, formerly with Project Liberty
  • Pamela Gil-Salas, Umeä University
  • Joseph Lorenzo Hall, Internet Society
  • Martin Hullin, Datasphere Initiative
  • Najah Itani, SMEX
  • Pavlina Ittelson, Diplo
  • Fieke Jansen, critical infrastructure lab
  • Tommy Jensen, Microsoft
  • Paul Keller, Open Future Foundation
  • Ellie Klerlein, Spitfire Strategies
  • Mallory Knodel, Center for Democracy and Technology
  • Amandine Le Pape, Matrix
  • Chris Lewis, Public Knowledge
  • Maxigas, critical infrastructure lab
  • Sean Martin McDonald, Digital Public
  • Paul Mendoza, New Public
  • Valeria Milanes, ADC
  • Charles Mok, Stanford Global Digital Policy Incubator
  • David Morar, Open Technology Institute
  • Susan Morrow, Avoco Secure
  • Tracy Navichoque, Stanford Global Digital Policy Incubator
  • Maarit Palovirta, European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association
  • Eli Pariser, New Public
  • Sivan Pätsch, OpenForum Europe
  • Jan Penfrat, European Digital Rights
  • Dionysia Peppa, SMEX
  • Clément Perarnaud, Centre for European Policy Studies
  • Courtney Radsch, Article 19
  • Marianne Rahme, SMEX
  • Chris Riley, Data Transfer Initiative
  • Julian Ringhof, European Council on Foreign Relations
  • Carolina Rossini, Datasphere Initiative
  • Mathilde Sanders, Utrecht University / PubHubs
  • Boaz Sender, Bocoup
  • Philip Sheldrake, Euler Partners
  • Jess Stahl, OpenMined
  • Lacey Strahm, OpenMined
  • Aditi Surana, University of Edinburgh
  • Alek Tarkowski, Open Future Foundation
  • Niels ten Oever, critical infrastructure lab
  • Christian Tom, formerly with Project Liberty
  • Andrew Trask, OpenMined
  • Prem Trivedi, Open Technology Institute
  • Vivek Trivedi, Ford Foundation
  • Michael Veale, University College London
  • Priya Vora, Digital Impact Alliance
  • Ethan Zuckerman, University of Massachusetts, Amherst