A Clash of Cables: the United States and the United Nations vie for control of cyberspace

networked A Clash of Cables: the United States and the United Nations vie for control of cyberspace

According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, the Pentagon has concluded that “computer sabotage coming from another country can constitute an act of war,” a finding that for the first time opens the door for the United States to respond to cyber-attacks by employing traditional conceptualisations of military force. Such a finding reminds the (cyber) world that Washington is a champion of American freedom first and foremost, no more or less self-interested than any other private or public institution in meeting its own needs before those of the international community at large. Yet the difference between the United States and other private or public institutions is the scale and magnitude of its reach and impact upon the global stage – Washington wields much bigger “sticks” with which to dictate terms favourable to itself when dealing with both state and non state actors.

With this declaration it is becoming increasingly apparent that America’s first formal cyber-strategy represents an attempt to grapple with a world in which cyberspace and conventional space are no longer distinct spheres, instead part of a changing geopolitical environment in which a well-equipped hacker could pose as significant a threat to US nuclear reactors, subways or pipelines as a hostile nation’s military has posed in the past. Such is the political climate we find ourselves in today – digital belligerence can be met with physical retaliation in a digital realm which conduct between nations remains largely under defined and under policed. For these reasons December will be a pivotal month in the ongoing evolution of international affairs in cyberspace.


Framing the Digital Divide

In December 2012, all 193 UN delegates will meet in Dubai to engage in a monumental debate. Rhetoric aside, the debate essentially boils down to one key issue: whether the United Nations should be more or less involved in Internet governance. Evocative of modern statecraft, a pattern is forming, with East clashing against West. Russia, China, and their developing allies are advocating for greater UN involvement. Russian ‘ringleader’ Vladimir Putin said last June that Moscow’s goal is to establish “international control over the Internet” through the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a treaty-based organization under UN auspices.

The rationale offered by the ‘Warsaw Pact 2.0’ being that because the Internet is a global entity, it should be managed according to global standards. They note that at the moment control over the fundamental levers and gears that underlie the Internet, including the domain-name system, lies with ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names & Numbers), which is a private, U.S.-based non-profit organisation. Further reifying this view is the Secretary-General of the ITU, Hamadoun Touré, who told Vanity Fair in a recent interview that “when an invention becomes used by billions across the world, it no longer remains the sole property of one nation, however powerful that nation might be.”

Not surprisingly, the US and its ‘Coalition of the Willing 2.0’ (more impressive than the one in 2003), is arguing against such a move, defending its position by advocating that a balkanised Internet would be devastating to global free trade and national sovereignty by impairing Internet growth as technologists would be forced to seek bureaucratic permission to innovate and invest. Moreover, they note that since the Net’s inception, engineers, academics, user groups and others have convened in bottom-up nongovernmental organisations to keep it operating and thriving through what is known as a multi-stakeholder governance model. This consensus-driven private-sector approach has been the key to the Net’s phenomenal success.


So What Happens Next?

If successful, these new regulatory proposals would drastically alter the unregulated nature of the current networks on the Web, which have been in place since 1988. These networks insulated the Internet from economic and technical regulation and quickly became the greatest deregulatory success story of all time. In 1995, shortly after it was privatised, only 16 million people used the Internet world-wide. By 2011, more than two billion were online, a number that is growing by as much as half a million every day. This explosive growth can be directly attributed to governments (largely) keeping their hands off the digital sphere.

A top-down, centralised, international regulatory overlay is antithetical to the architecture of the Net, which is a global network of networks without borders. No government, let alone an intergovernmental body, can make engineering and economic decisions in the lightning-fast time that bits and bytes travel through cyberspace. The global spread of information is a crucial tool within the developing world, where unfettered Internet technologies are expanding economies and raising living standards. The Internet has been a net job creator: a recent McKinsey study found that for every job disrupted by Internet connectivity, 2.6 new jobs are created. Yet the benefits of cyberspace transcend growth figures and GDP estimates – net access, especially through mobile devices, is improving the human condition more quickly, and more fundamentally, than any other technology in history. Farmers who live far from markets are now able to find buyers for their crops through their Internet-connected mobile devices without assuming the risks and expenses of traveling with their goods. Worried parents are able to go online to locate medicine for their sick children. Proponents of political freedom are better able to share information and organise support to break down the walls of tyranny.It is no coincidence that these developments have permeated as the Internet migrated further away from government control. As such, these successes would grind to a halt if the Internet would become politically paralysed within a global regulatory body.


Choosing Sides

When deciding whether to support ‘Eastern regulation’ or ‘Western unmitigation’ in the ‘clash of the cables’ it is all too tempting to be blinded by the myths of freedom proliferated by America and its allies. However, it is important to think critically at this crossroads of digital freedom – choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil. While supporting America’s proposed status quo seems like a no-brainer, consider the classic double-standard practiced by the US when it comes to corporate bailouts, terrorism, or immigration. Rather hypocritically, American officials seem to be all for a deregulated Internet only when the regulatory body in question is the “not-US government.”

Need evidence? Good. Anyone looking can see the irony of US Congress becoming so concerned about control of the Internet when that’s exactly what certain members of the House and Senate were trying to implement by promoting SOPA and PIPA, bills that would have imposed a wide range of responsibilities on Internet service providers and others in the name of copyright protection, and were widely criticised for infringing on freedom of speech and the open Internet. It seems that the U.S. is not really trying to prevent global Internet censorship, but rather is attempting to ensure that it remains the only country that is legally allowed to do so.

Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming U.N. meeting on cyberspace, things will not be able to stay the same. Cyberspace has changed rapidly since 1988, and new laws are needed to reflect said change. In assessing the merit of the various proposals brought forth to address these emerging needs, it is important to remain critical, and not to buy into either side’s rhetoric. Having notoriously censored countries such as China and Russia dictating Internet policy would not be a good thing, but neither is America’s monopolistic control of key Internet components such as the aforementioned ICANN. Finding a balance between these two poles at the upcoming UN cyberspace conference appears unlikely – generally, the overwhelming drive at such major political gatherings is to find the key points of consensus between countries so that a treaty has a chance of coming into force. If there are huge disagreements (in this case, over the basic nature of Internet governance), there will be no treaty. For now, that is the way things seem to be trending.


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