Two Incompatible Approaches to Governing Cyberspace Hinder Global Consensus

Two Incompatible Approaches to Governing Cyberspace Hinder Global Consensus

Meaningful agreement on global norms for state behaviour in cyberspace seems unlikely. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

Despite early optimism that marked the advent of the internet, today it seems the internet is increasingly used as a tool of surveillance, censorship, repression, crime, and even war. Cyberattacks are constant; targeting businesses, governments and individuals – around the entire world. As technology advances, new threats are on their way.

The general consensus among states and scholars worldwide is that some degree of norms is needed to enhance stability and define responsible behaviour in cyberspace, as well as international discussion on what such norms might look like and how they might apply.

Perhaps ironically, the call for cyber norms has its roots in Russian-led arms control resolution dating back to 1998, focused on mitigating threats from information weapons and information wars, while pushing for the ability to retain control over information environments. This has laid the groundwork for the idea of information as a security threat, which Western governments have long criticised as reflecting a desire for governmental control over the free flow of information. These different approaches to information security have led to fundamental rifts between liberal and authoritarian nations, and their respective approaches to governing or controlling cyberspace. Alexander Klimburg describes this as a clash between ‘free internet’ states, and ‘cyber sovereignty’ states. The liberal versus non-liberal distinction is only too evident in today’s international cyber norms discussions.

Since its first meeting in 2004, the United Nations Group of Governmental Experts (UN GGE) has worked to promote peace and stability in state use of ICTs, while studying international information security issues. The UN GGE has met five times, issuing consensus reports in 2010, 2013 and 2015. Key outcomes from these were the 2013 agreement that international law applies in cyberspace, and the 2015 agreement that recommended eleven norms, rules and principles for governing cyberspace. The GGE failed to reach a consensus at its most recent meeting in 2017, but in early November 2018, two separate resolutions were approved in the UN: one US-led, pushing for a new GGE, and one Russian-led, calling for an open-ended working group (OEWG) on rules, norms and responsible state behaviour. The GGE has a small, carefully selected membership, while the OEWG is open to all UN members.

Much about this is unclear, for example, what will happen should there be two parallel but different consensuses. It also raises the question of what the role of liberal democracies should be, especially those who have been excluded from the 25-member GGE process.

In the OEWG, democracies should focus on engaging states that have not yet fully developed their positions and policies in cyberspace, i.e.: whether they align more with the ‘free internet’ or ‘cyber sovereignty’ camp. States from both camps will look to persuade undecided UN members of the benefits of their respective approaches. Proponents of the ‘free internet’ camp could focus on outreach, capacity building, and perhaps above all, on dominating the narrative. The latter can be facilitated in particular through economic, strategic, and rational arguments for an open and free internet.

Opening up the GGE process to all states will make it far more difficult to act and come to effective conclusions. Yet advocates for the OEWG appropriate democratic and decolonial arguments that are hard to refute. Support for the OEWG format fits within broader global pushback against the notion that liberal powers have long determined the evolution of international norms, thrusting their beliefs upon other states. It is untenable for Western democracies to push liberal norms on the rest of the world without much consultation and expect their universal adoption. But, as Xymena Kurowska suggests, there is value to a dialectic approach whereby all can push their narratives, because “some stories are better than others and can also be better told.”

That said, while engaging in strategic narrative contestation might lead to some progress in the OEWG, hoping to sway authoritarian states with rational arguments may be naïve. Above all, authoritarians want to maintain control and stay in power. If a free internet threatens this, it is hard to imagine that such countries would sacrifice regime stability for economic growth or social progress.

It is thus hard to see any positive outcome coming from the split GGE process. The OEWG is to end a year before the GGE must submit its report. If the OEWG is not to the liking of, say, Russia and China, the two could easily prevent GGE consensus. If the OEWG recognises key Russian and Chinese objectives, it may not matter what the GGE will look like; Russia and China could tout the former as the ‘true’ global consensus. The split process, if it does not fail, seems doomed to simply reinforce the current liberal versus non-liberal divide. This might question the feasibility of universal norms; we might instead be headed toward long-lasting competition between two (or more) rival sets of like-minded norms.

However, despite this pessimistic outlook for universal norms, there is ultimately still much value for proponents of a free internet to engage in this process. Democracies must ensure they practise at home what they preach abroad, and to consistently show commitment toward agreed-upon norms – including through various forms of enforcement. Relinquishing the fight for global norms informed by liberal values and interests—and for strategic control of the norms narrative—would undermine the very reasons for which these norms are being pursued.