Introducing the Commissioner for Digital Money: Safeguarding Privacy and Our Democratic Rights in the Age of Programmable Money

As the USA House Subcommittee on Digital Assets, Fintech, and Inclusion, hold a hearing on stablecoins Wednesday, April 19, 2023, in the USA, in the UK, and around the world, attempts to shoe-horn digital money from central and private banks (CBDCs and Stablecoins) into existing regulatory and legal frameworks are also struggling to find the right balance, the right formula, given the difficult hand dealt to them.

Because this is the advent of endemic, digital, programmable money and, perhaps needless to say, we can’t afford to get it wrong. Not least because we are playing not only with our national money, in each case, but with a new and unprecedented power to surveil and control people – whether suppressed and nascent or not. Given that the programmability of national money is unprecedented we may well also face unforeseen problems and consequences that will need to be identified and remedied quickly.

A little over ten years ago, having concluded that the UK financial regulator’s ethos and priorities were struggling to encompass Fintech innovation, I published the article that first advocated the creation of a new, regulatory, innovation unit – with precisely that focus and brief. It worked! Within a couple of years the idea had been adopted, forming the basis of the regulatory innovation unit which is now part of the norm around the world, with similar units now having been established in fifty jurisdictions.

Forward to 2023 and all the efforts being expended to further stretch the responsibilities of the various agencies and regulators, who’re ill-equipped for these tasks, begs the question… perhaps we are missing something – and should learn from digital history? Including both this and earlier: Around 40 years ago in the UK, it having become obvious that the power of data was such that we needed a new approach from a new regulator, the Lindop report was commissioned. Resulting in the creation first of the Data Protection Act 1984 and soon after the role of Data Commissioner.

It’s increasingly clear that the advent of national (and global) digital, programmable money is a development at least as profound.

Perhaps we can now learn from and apply this approach to create the governance, accountability, and transparency we need to introduce the DIgital Pound, The Digital Dollar, not to mention expand the stablecoins already in use, safely?

 

It’s clear enough that the rapid development of Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs) and Stablecoins has introduced a new set of challenges that echo past concerns about data protection and privacy. Drawing parallels with the events that led to the creation of the Information Commissioner in the UK, it is essential to address the unique challenges posed by digital currencies and ensure a future where programmable money coexists with individual privacy and security. Establishing a new regulatory body, led by a Commissioner for Digital-Money, is crucial to achieving this balance.

The Commissioner for Digital-Money would serve as the head of a specialized regulatory body responsible for overseeing the development, implementation, and use of digital currencies in a way that upholds privacy and individual rights. This new role and organization would complement existing data protection authorities, focusing specifically on the unique challenges posed by programmable money.

The key responsibilities of the Commissioner for Digital-Money would include:

  1. Establishing a legal framework: Similar to how the Lindop Report led to the development of the Data Protection Act 1984, the Commissioner for Digital-Money would create a legal framework outlining the rights and responsibilities of parties involved in digital currency transactions. This framework would ensure individual privacy is maintained and provide clear guidelines for the operation of CBDCs and Stablecoins.

  2. Overseeing compliance and enforcement: The Commissioner for Digital-Money would monitor and enforce compliance with the established legal framework, working closely with other regulatory bodies, such as central banks and financial regulators, to ensure digital currency providers and users adhere to the rules and maintain high standards of privacy and security.

  3. Promoting transparency and accountability: The Commissioner for Digital-Money would work to ensure digital currency providers operate transparently and accountably, requiring organizations to disclose information about their operations and empowering individuals to access and control their personal data and financial transactions.

  4. Protecting individual rights: The Commissioner for Digital-Money would ensure the rights of individuals are upheld in the digital currency ecosystem, advocating for the right to privacy, the right to access and control one’s financial data, and the right to seek compensation in cases of misuse or abuse.

  5. Engaging with international partners: Given the global nature of digital currencies, the Commissioner for Digital-Money would collaborate with counterparts in other jurisdictions to develop harmonized regulatory frameworks and address cross-border challenges.

 

The case for a dedicated Commissioner for Digital-Money is even more compelling, considering existing regulatory bodies are already stretched thin, grappling with challenges in areas such as cybersecurity, data breaches, and privacy rights. Establishing a specialized body would ensure a clear focus on the unique issues arising from digital currency adoption, allowing existing regulators to maintain their focus on core responsibilities.

A dedicated Commissioner for Digital-Money and regulatory body would facilitate greater transparency and accountability in the digital currency space by concentrating expertise and resources. Enhanced expertise, streamlined communication, coordinated oversight, proactive monitoring, and public trust are key benefits that would emerge from this targeted approach.

By creating a dedicated Commissioner for Digital-Money, the complexities of the digital currency landscape can be navigated with greater clarity and focus. This targeted approach would drive increased transparency and accountability, fostering a more secure, innovative, and privacy-conscious digital currency ecosystem for all stakeholders.

As the adoption of CBDCs and Stablecoins accelerates, it is essential to learn from history and proactively address the challenges of this new financial landscape. Establishing a Commissioner for Digital-Money and a dedicated regulatory body would ensure that the lessons learned from the past inform the development of robust regulatory frameworks for the future.

In doing so, we can strike a balance between harnessing the potential of programmable money while safeguarding the privacy and rights of individuals in the digital age. The Commissioner for Digital-Money represents a necessary step toward realising a future where these currencies coexist with the essential principles of privacy, transparency, and accountability.

The establishment of a Commissioner for Digital-Money would also send a strong message to the public that their privacy and rights are being taken seriously in the context of digital currencies. This would foster trust in the system, encouraging wider adoption of CBDCs and Stablecoins while ensuring that users are confident in the protection of their data and privacy.

In conclusion, the rapid adoption of digital currencies such as CBDCs and Stablecoins underscores the need for a dedicated regulatory body to address privacy and individual rights concerns. By drawing from the lessons of the past and establishing a Commissioner for Digital-Money, we can navigate the challenges posed by programmable money and ensure a future where these currencies coexist with individual privacy and security.

As we embark on this new financial frontier, the establishment of a Commissioner for Digital-Money, democratically accountable to Parliament, is crucial to maintaining a balance between embracing the potential of programmable money and safeguarding privacy and democratic freedoms. This dedicated regulatory body would bring much-needed expertise, transparency, and accountability to the digital currency ecosystem, fostering a more secure, innovative, and privacy-conscious environment for all stakeholders.

Shoe-horning these new forms of national money into an existing framework, while perhaps tempting for some, risks playing fast and loose with our democratic freedoms. There is now an alternative that can focus on accountability and ensure transparency.


Barry E James, Founder Humane Economics, Industrial Fellow at Royal Docks School of Business and Law at the University of East London. Views expressed here are my own and not necessarily those of the organisations I lead or support.


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