A couple of months before the U.S.-led Five Eyes operation disrupted Russia’s sophisticated state-run cyber espionage group Turla’s operations, Moscow submitted its vision for a Convention of the United Nations (UN) on Ensuring International Information Security to the UN Open-Ended Working Group on Security (OEWG). The nine-page proposalfocused on three objectives: 1.) preventing and settling inter-nation state conflicts in the information space; 2.) building trust and developing cooperation among UN member states in international information security to mitigate escalation of tensions rooted in abuse of the information space; and 3.) supporting capacity building in the use of information and communication technologies. At its core, the proposal highlights the need for an international treaty within the framework of the UN as necessary to bring some semblance of order to how states have been operating.
Over the years, Russia has tried several times to promote its vision for global information security (notably in 2011 and 2015), typically partnering with China and other like-minded nations and submitting proposals to the UN General Assembly. In addition to China, these efforts have been supported by other countries including Iran, as well as other Shanghai Cooperation Organization members, which is unsurprising given the nature of these states’ relationships with one another. Each time, they have met resistance, mostly from Western democratic governments that favor a more stakeholder approach (that includes private sector entities) and readily point to how such proposals did nothing to mitigate authoritarian governments from cracking down internally on online free speech and political activities contrary to the government in power.
However, while these arguments seem logical, it does beg the question if they are still deal-breakers for those countries that haven’t committed to one side or another, given recent developments of some Western countries’ own activities in curbing what they have deemed hostile content under the guise of preserving democracy. Exacerbating matters for the United States, recent disclosures have revealed that several U.S. government agencies were engaged in colluding with Big Tech to influence the control of content on various social media platforms. The Federal Bureau of Investigations’ suspected role in burying revelations regarding Biden’s son’s laptop and the material therein in the months leading up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election further suggested a government willingness to suppress and censor information for a specific purpose. Such practices are eerily reminiscent of draconian methods to root out opposing political voices and quelling free speech.
To be fair, the United States is not the only “democracy” caught up in such seeming paradox. Recent reports show that other democratic nation states also censor select content, though they have different ideas of what should be censored (disinformation, misinformation, etc.) and often fail to specifically categorize the criteria by which such information is evaluated. Ascertaining what constitutes “illegal content” is largely dependent on how the government in charge wants to define it. In this way, the danger of what is censored is in the eye of the beholder. However, what is clear is that regardless of what is suppressed, the fact that democratic-leaning governments are willing to engage in such activity makes it difficult for them to point fingers at another government. It also negates using this argument to eliminate an alternative global information security proposal by an opponent. Any time democratic government institutions leverage private sector companies to acquiesce to their direction, it tarnishes their shine, a fact not lost on states like China, Iran, Mexico, and Russia that often cite U.S. hypocrisy.
Indeed, a 2022 report on global Internet censorship found that a dozen European countries limited access to political media, with at least four blocking or banning social media platforms, suggesting an increasing appetite for democracies to engage in such behavior, regardless of the intent behind it. Case and point: a representative democratic country like Germany passed its Network Enforcement Act, a law which does not require German authorities to obtain a court order before compelling the removal of such content, eliminating any kind of judicial oversight. France, too, does not appear to be the stalwart champion of free speech as many believe for the government’s part in targeting individuals extorting “contempt of public officials.”
The United Kingdom recently passed its Online Safety Bill, which would allow authorities to compel the removal of harmful from social media platforms. Even the world’s largest democracy, India, has also instituted a series of Internet regulations that give the government substantial control over the Internet giving it a “digital authoritarianism.” Even the United States government was flirting with establishing a disinformation governance board that some lawmakers argued could be used to target content unfavorable to some White House policies before dissolving it due to public backlash. Practices like these certainly raise suspicion particularly when there is minimum transparency and little-to-no oversight involved.
But there is another interesting aspect of Russia’s new proposal – it garnered support from an unlikely source, North Korea. Pyoungyang has not been involved in such discussions in the past and has not really articulated or advocated a public position on such matters. Therefore, any inclusion in a joint-state proposal involving global cybersecurity, state behaviors in cyberspace, and building state trust elicits attention, particularly when it is driven by states tied to hostile activities. North Korea first gained cyber notoriety with the Sony attack in 2014 and solidified its bona fides by ultimately becoming the nation state leader in committing cybercrime to fuel national programs and soften economic sanctions. Though a permanent member since 1991, North Korea has not engaged the UN as much as used the international body as a platform from which to respond to the criticism levied against it by the West.
So, North Korea’s support is significant in that it comes at a time when China, Iran, and Russia have increased their own cyber relationships as a means to counter U.S. efforts in building their own coalitions to counter threats posed by these governments. With North Korea looking to strengthen its bonds with China, Iran, and Russia, the show of mutual support for cyber issues brings another cyber-capable country into the China-Russia ranks that espouse nation state cyber sovereignty and rejecting foreign interference in such matters. It’s very well possible that this may just be a stunt rather than carry any meaningful weight with respect to pushing this proposal through. Aside from all being pariah or near-pariah states, there may be little appetite to fold the unpredictable North Korea deeper into the developing tripartite at this juncture. Still, its formal backing of the proposal shows that it’s a possibility, and therefore, something the West needs to consider, especially if they see Pyongyang become more involved in cyber agreements and information sharing.
The Snowden leak coupled with the recent Pentagon disclosure has hurt the U.S. image, and while spying on countries is an accepted practice, it is still frowned upon by friendly and allied nations, regardless of what they say publicly. But if democratic countries want to persuade others to join their positions in the OEWG or even the UN’s Group of Government Experts, they need to promote a democratic model of the Internet by setting the bar for the rest of the world via their actions, not their words. Passing legislation that censors content and limits free speech, and leveraging Big Tech to support government objectives does not separate democracies from authoritarian regimes, as much as it shows that with respect to the Internet, the line between the two is steadily narrowing. This doesn’t facilitate choice as much as compels concession, especially if the end result is more or less the same.