Can New Norms of Behavior Extend the Rules-Based Order Into Cyberspace?

Can New Norms of Behavior Extend the Rules-Based Order Into Cyberspace?
A person reads a news report about Facebook, which shut down a number of fake news sites that were spreading disinformation ahead of national elections, on his mobile phone, Dhaka, Bangladesh, Dec. 20, 2018 (AP photo).

Over the past quarter century, the internet has transformed human existence, dramatically altering everything from daily life, societal interactions and economic exchange, to political debates and geopolitical rivalries. In 1996, only 36 million people were online. Today, 3.7 billion are, and the remaining half of humanity will soon join them in the connected world. Although the benefits of cyberspace are undeniable, malicious state and criminal actors often use it to further their nefarious ends, while at times endangering its digital infrastructure. Hoping to protect this vulnerable domain, the Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace recently issued its final report, “Advancing Cyberstability.”

The commission, co-chaired by former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff and former Indian Deputy National Security Adviser Latha Reddy, toiled for three years, consulting globally with governments, international organizations, private corporations, technical experts and members of civil society. According to Foreign Minister Stef Blok of the Netherlands, which helped underwrite the commission’s work, one overriding conviction animated its efforts: “Cyberspace cannot be an ungoverned space where bad guys can do what they want,” he said in issuing the report at last month’s Paris Peace Forum. “The rules-based order and international law must extend into cyberspace.”

The commission’s report begins by defining terms. “Stability of cyberspace,” it states, “means everyone can be reasonably confident in their ability to use cyberspace safely and securely,” and without interference. Digital information and services must be assured and uncompromised, and relevant actors must agree to manage change peacefully and resolve their tensions “in a non-escalatory manner.” The commission unequivocally endorses a multistakeholder model of cyberspace governance, in which international agencies, NGOs and civil society participate alongside national governments in managing issues of common concern. This is an important and welcome decision. Since the dawn of the internet, authoritarian governments have agitated for expanded state control. They seek to replace the longstanding, decentralized structure of cyberspace governance, which rests heavily on the private sector, with an intergovernmental model that expands the power of sovereign state authorities, including through the International Telecommunication Union. Such a shift would empower strongmen and endanger the free and open internet.

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