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“Politics by other means”: Fostering positive contestation and charting ‘red lines’ through global governance in cyberspace

Posted by Arindrajit Basu at Oct 20, 2019 06:55 AM |
The past year has been a busy one for the fermentation of global governance efforts in cyberspace with multiple actors-states, industry, and civil society spearheading a variety of initiatives. Given the multiplicity of actors, ideologies, and vested interests at play in this ecosystem, any governance initiative will be, by default, political, and desirably so.

Arindrajit Basu's essay for this year's Digital Debates: The CyFy Journal was published jointly by Global Policy and ORF. It was written in response to a framing essay by Dennis Broeders under the governance theme. The article was edited by Gurshabad Grover. Arindrajit also acknowledges the contributions of the editorial team at ORF: Trisha, Akhil and Meher.

There is no silver bullet that will magically result in universally acknowledged rules of the road. Instead, through consistent probing and prodding, the global community must create inclusive processes to galvanize consensus to ensure that individuals across the world can repose trust and confidence in their use of global digital infrastructure.[2] This includes both ‘red lines’ applicable to clearly prohibited acts of cyberspace and softer norms for responsible state behaviour in cyberspace, that arise from an application of the tenets of International Law to cyberspace.

Infrastructure is political

Networked infrastructures typically originate when a series of technological systems with varying technical standards converge, or when a technological system achieves dominance over other self-contained technologies.[3] Through this process of convergence, networked infrastructures must adapt to a variety of differing political conditions, legal regulations and governance practices.[4] Internet infrastructure was never self-contained technology, but an amalgamation of systems, protocols, standards and hardware along with the standards bodies, private actors and states that define it.[5] The architecture has always been deeply socio-technical[6] and any attempt to severe the technology from the politics of internet governance would be a fool’s errand.

Politics catalyzed the development of the technological infrastructure that lead to the creation of the internet. During the heyday of nuclear brinkmanship between the USA and USSR, Paul Baran, an engineer with the US Department of Defense think tank RAND Corporation was tasked with building a means of communication that could continue running even if some parts were to be knocked out by a nuclear war.[7]

As Baran’s ‘Bomb proof network’ morphed into the US Department of Defense funded ARPANET, it was initially apparent that it was not meant for either mass or commercial use, but instead saw its nurturing in the US as a tool of strategic defense.[8]

This enabled the US to retain a disproportionate -- and till the 1990s, relatively uncontested -- influence on internet governance. As the internet rapidly expanded across the globe, various actors found that single state control over an invaluable global resource was unjust.[9] Others (9which included US Senator Ted Cruz), argued that the internet would be safer in the hands of the United States than an international forum whose processes could be reduced to stalemate as a result of politicized conflict between democratic and non-democratic states who seek to use online spaces as an instrument of suppression.[10] The ICANN and IANA transitions were therefore not rooted in technical considerations but much-needed geopolitical pressure from states and actors who felt ‘disregarded’[11] in the governance of the internet. An inclusive multi-stakeholder process fueled by inclusive geopolitical contestation is far more effective in the long run and has the potential of respecting the rights of ‘disregarded’ communities all across the globe far more than a unilateral process that ignores any voices of opposition.

It is now clear that despite its continued outsized influence, the United States is no longer the only major state player in global cyber governance. China has propelled itself as a major political and economic challenger to the United States across several regimes[12], including in the cyber domain. China’s export of the ‘information sovereignty’[13] doctrine at various cyber norms proliferation fora, including at the United Nations-Group of Governmental Experts (GGE), and regional forums like the Shanghai Co-operation (SCO), is an example of its desire to impose its ideological clout on global conceptions of the internet.

As a rising power, China’s aspirations in global internet governance are not limited to ideology. China is at an ‘innovation imperative’, where it needs to develop new technologies to retain its status and fuel long-term growth.[14] This locks it into direct economic, and therefore strategic competition with the United States that seeks to retain control over the same supply chains and continues to assert its economic and military superiority.

China has dominated the 5G space in an unprecedented way, and has been a product of a concerted ‘whole of government’ effort.[15] Beijing charted out an industrial policy that enabled the deployment of 5G networks as a key national priority.[16] China has also successfully weaponized global technical standard-setting efforts to promote its geo-economic interests.[17] Reeling from the failure of its domestic 3G standard that was ignored globally, China realised the importance of the ‘first-movers’ advantage’ in setting standards for companies and businesses.[18] Through an aggressive strategic push at a number of international bodies such as the International Telecommunications Union, China’s diplomatic pivot has allowed it to push standards established domestically with little external input, thereby giving Chinese companies the upper hand globally.[19]

Politics continues to frame the technical solutions that enable cybersecurity.19 Following Snowden’s revelations, some stakeholders in the global community have shaped their politics to frame the problem as one of protecting individuals’ data from governments and private companies looking to extract and exploit it. The technical solutions developed in this frame are encryption standards and privacy enhancing technologies. However, intelligence agencies continue to frame the problem differently: they see it as an issue of collecting and aggregating data in order to identify malicious actors and threat vectors. The technical solutions they devise are increased surveillance and data analysis -- problems the first framing intended to solve. The techno-political gap, both in academic scholarship and global norms proliferation efforts continues to jeopardize attempts at framing cybersecurity governance.[20] Instead of artificially depoliticizing technology, it is imperative that we ferment political contestation in a manner that holistically promulgates the perception that internet infrastructure can be trusted and utilised by individuals and communities around the world.

Fostering ‘red lines’ and diffusing ‘unpeace’ in cyberspace

‘Unpeace’ in cyberspace continues to ferment through ‘below the threshold’ operations that do not amount to the ‘use of force’ as per Article 2(4), or an ‘armed attack’ triggering the right of self-defense under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. This makes the application of jus ad bellum (‘right to war’) inapplicable to most cyber operations.[21] However, the application of ‘jus in bello’ (law that governs the way in which warfare is conducted) or International Humanitarian Law (IHL) does not require armed force to be of a specific intensity but seeks to protect civilians and prevent unnecessary suffering. Therefore the principles of IHL that have evolved in The Geneva Conventions should be used as red lines that limit collateral damage as a result of cyber operations.[22] No state should conduct cyber operations that intend to harm civilians, and should us all means at its disposal to avoid this harm to civilians. It should act in line with the principles of necessity[23] and proportionality.[24]

Cultivating ‘red lines’ is easier said than done. The debate around the applicability of IHL to cyberspace was one of the reasons for the breakdown of the fifth UN-GGE in 2017.[25] States have also been reluctant to state their positions on the rules developed by the International Group of Experts (IGE) in the Tallinn Manual.[26] This is due to two main reasons. First, not endorsing the rules may allow them to retain operational advantages in cyberspace where they continue engaging in cyber operations without censure. Second, even those states who wish to apply and adhere to the rules hesitate to do so in the absence of effective processes that censure states that do not comply with the rules.

Both these issues stem from the difficulties in attributing a cyber attack to a state as cyber attacks are multi-stage, multi-step and multi-jurisdictional, which makes the attacker several degrees removed from the victim.[27] Technical challenges to attribution, however should not take away from international efforts that adopt an integrated and multi-disciplinary approach to attribution which must be seen as a political process working in conjunction with robust technical efforts.[28] The Cyber Peace Institute, which was set up earlier in September 2019, and adopts an ecosystem approach to studying cyber attacks, thereby improving global attribution standards may institutionally serve this function.[29] As attribution processes become clearer and hold greater political weight, an increasing number of states are likely to show their cards and abandon their policy of silence and ambiguity -- a process that has already commenced with a handful of states releasing clear statements on the applicability of international law in cyberspace.[30]

Below the threshold operations are likely to continue. However, the process of contestation should result in the international community drawing out norms that ensure that public trust and confidence in the security of global digital infrastructure is not eroded. This would include norms such as protecting electoral infrastructure or a prohibition on coercing private corporations to aid intelligence agencies in extraterritorial surveillance29 The development of these norms will take time and repeated prodding. However, given the entangled and interdependent nature of the global digital economy, protracted effort may result in universal consensus in some time.

The Future of Cyber Diplomacy

The recently rejuvenated UN driven norms formulation processes are examples of this protracted effort. Both the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) and Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) processes are pushing states towards publicly declaring their positions on multiple questions of cyber governance, which will only further certainty and predictability in this space. The GGE requires all member states to clearly chart out their position on the applicability of various questions of International Law, which will be included as an Annex to the final report and is definitely a step in the right direction.

There are multiple lessons from parliamentary diplomacy culminating in past global governance regimes that negotiators in these processes can borrow from.[31] As in the past, the tenets of international law can influence collective expectations and serve as a facilitative mechanism for chalking out bargaining points, and driving the negotiations within an inclusive, efficient and understandable framework.[32]

Both processes will be politicized as before with states seeking to use these as fora for furthering national interests. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Protracted contestation is preferable to unilateralism where a select group of states decides the future of cyber governance. The inclusive, public format of the OEWG running in parallel to the closed-door deliberations at the GGE enables concerted dialogue to continue. Most countries had voted for the resolutions setting up both these processes and while the end-game is unknown, it appears that states remain interested in cultivating cyber norms.

Of course, the USA and its NATO allies had voted against the resolution setting up the OEWG and Russia, China and the SCO allies had voted against the resolution resurrecting the GGE. However, given the economic interests of all states in a relatively stable cyberspace, it is clear that both these blocks desire global consensus on some rules of the road for responsible behaviour in cyberspace. This means that both processes may arrive at certain similar outcomes. These outcomes might over time evolve into norms or even crystallise into rules of customary international law if they are representative of the interests of a large number of states.

However, sole reliance on state-centric mechanisms to achieve a stable governance regime may be misplaced. As seen with Dupont’s contribution to the Montreal Protocol that banned the global use of Chloro-Fluoro-Carbons (CFCs)[33] or the International Committee of the Red Cross’s concerted efforts in rallying states to sign the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions[34], norm-entrepreneurship and the mantle of leadership in norm-entrepreneurship need not be limited to state  actors. Non-state actors often have the gifts of flexibility and strategic neutrality that make them a better fit for this role than states. Microsoft’s leadership and its ascent to this leadership mantle in the cyber governance space must therefore be taken heed off. The key role it played in charting out the CyberSecurity Tech Accords, Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace and its most recent initiative, the Cyber Peace Institute, must be commended. However, the success of its entrepreneurship relies on how well it can work both with multilateral mechanisms under the aegis of the United Nations and multi-stakeholder fora such as the Global Commission on Stability in Cyberspace. This will lead to a cohesive set of rules that adequately govern the conduct of both state and non-state actors in cyberspace.

It is unfortunate, however, that most governance efforts in cyberspace are driven by the United States or China or their allies. For example, only UK[35], France[36], Germany,[37] Estonia[38],Cuba[39] (backed by China and Russia), and the USA[40] have all engaged in public posturing advocating their ideological position on the applicability of International Law in cyberspace in varying degrees of detail with other countries largely remaining silent. Other emerging economies need to get into the game to make the process more representative and equitable.

More recently, India has begun to take a leadership role in the global debate on cross-border data transfers, spurred largely by their domestic political and policy ecosystem championing ‘digital nationalism.’ At the G20 summit in Osaka in July this year, India, alongside the BRICS grouping emphasized the development dimensions of data for emerging economies and pushed the notion of ‘data sovereignty’-broadly understood as the sovereign right of nations to govern data within their territories/jurisdiction in the national interest and for the welfare of its people.[41] Resisting calls from Western allies including the United States to get on board Japan’s initiative promoting the free flow of data across borders, Vijay Gokhale also mentioned that discussions on data flows must not take place at plurilateral forums outside the World Trade Organization as this would prevent inclusive discussions.[42]This form of posturing should be sustained by emerging economies like India and extended to the security domain as well through which the hegemony that a few powerful actors retain over the contours of cyber governance can be reduced.

To paraphrase Clausewitz, technological governance is the conduct of politics by other means. Internet infrastructure has become so deeply intertwined with the political ethos of most countries that it has become the latest front for geopolitical contestation among state and non-state actors alike. Politicizing cyber governance prevents a deracinated approach to the process that ignores simmering inequalities, power asymmetries and tensions that a limited technical lens prevents us from viewing.

The question is, not if but how cyber governance will be politicized. Will it be a politics of inclusion that protects the rights of the disregarded and adequately represents their voices in line with the requirements of International Law, or will it be a politics of convenience through which states and non-state actors utilise cyber governance for reaping strategic dividends? The global cyber policy ecosystem must continue the battle to ensure that the former remains essential.


[1] Arindrajit Basu and Elonnai Hickok (2018) “Cyberspace and External Affairs: A memorandum for India”, 8-13.

[2] In its draft definition of cyber stability, The Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace has adopted a bottom up user centric definition of Cyber Stability where individuals can be confident in the stability of cyberspace as opposed to an objective top-down determination of cybersecurity metrics.

[3] PN Edwards, GC Bowker Jackson SJ, R Williams 2009. Introduction: an agenda for infrastructure studies. J. Assoc. Inf. Syst.10(5):364–74

[4] Brian Larkin, “ The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure” Annual Rev. Anthropol 2013,42:327-43

[5] Ibid.

[6] Kieron O’Hara and Wendy Hall, “Four Internets: The Geopolitics of Digital Governance” CIGI Report No.208, December 2018.

[7] Cade Metz, “Paul Baran, the link between nuclear war and the internet” Wired, 4th Sept. 2012.

[8] Kal Raustila (2016) “Governing the Internet” American Journal of International Law 110:3,491

[9] Samantha Bradshaw, Laura DeNardis, Fen Osler Hampson, Eric Jardine & Mark Raymond, The Emergence of Contention in Global Internet Governance 3 (Global Comm’n on Internet Governance, Paper Series No. 17, July 2015).

[10] Klint Finley, "The Internet Finally Belongs to Everyone”, Wired, March 18th, 2016.

[11] Richard Stewart (2014), Remedying Disregard in Global Regulatory Governance: Accountability, Participation and Responsiveness” AJIL 108:2

[12] Tarun Chhabra, Rush Doshi, Ryan Hass and Emilie Kimball, “Global China: Domains of strategic competition and domestic drivers” Brookings Institution, September 2019.

[13] According to this view, a state can manage and define its ‘network frontiers; through domestic legislation or state policy and patrol information at it state borders in any way it deems fit. Yuan Yi,. “网络空间的国界在哪 ” [Where Are the National Borders of cyberspace]? 学习时报.May 19, 2016.

[14] Anthea Roberts, Henrique Choer Moraes and Victor Ferguson (2019), “Toward a Geoeconomic Order in International Trade and Investment” (May 16, 2019).

[15] Eurasia Group (2018), “The Geopolitics of 5G”

[16] Ibid.( In 2013, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and the Ministry of Science and technology (MOST) established the IMT-2020 5G Promotion Group to push for a government all-industry alliance on 5G.)

[17] Bjorn Fagersten&Tim Ruhlig (2019), "China’s standard power and it’s geopolitical implications for Europe” Swedish Institute for International Affairs.

[18] Alan Beattie, “Technology: how the US, EU and China compete to set industry standards” Financial Times, Jul 14th, 2019

[19] Laura Fitchner, Walter Pieters.,&Andre Herdero Texeira(2016). Cybersecurity as a Politikum: Implications of Security Discourses for Infrastructures. In Proceedings of the 2016 New Security Paradigms Workshop (36-48). New York: Association for Computing Machinery (ACM)

[20] Michael Crosston,” Phreak the Speak: The Flawed Communications within cyber intelligentsia” in Jan-Frederik Kremer and Benedikt Muller,”Cyberspace and International Relations: Theory, Prospects and Challenges (2013, Springer) 253.

[21]Fundamental Principles of International Humanitarian Law".

[22] Veronique Christory “Cyber warfare: IHL provides an additional layer of protection” 10 Sept. 2019.

[23] See (The “principle of military necessity” permits measures which are actually necessary to accomplish a legitimate military purpose and are not otherwise prohibited by international humanitarian law. In the case of an armed conflict, the only legitimate military purpose is to weaken the military capacity of the other parties to the conflict.

[24] See Proportionality; The principle of proportionality prohibits attacks against military objectives which are “expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated”

[25] Declaration by Miguel Rodriguez, Representative of Cuba, At the final session of group of governmental experts on developments in the field of information and telecommunications in the context of international security (June 23 2017).

[26] Dan Efrony and Yuval Shany (2018), “ A Rule Book on the Shelf? Tallinn Manual 2.0 on Cyberoperations and Subsequent State Practice” AJIL 112:4

[27] David Clark and Susan Landau. “Untangling Attribution.” Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard University) 2 (2011

[28] Davis, John S., Benjamin Adam Boudreaux, Jonathan William Welburn, Jair Aguirre, Cordaye Ogletree, Geoffrey McGovern and Michael S. Chase. Stateless Attribution: Toward International Accountability in Cyberspace. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, (2017). At

[29] See “CyberPeace Institute to Support Victims Harmed by Escalating Conflicts in Cyberspace”.

[30] Dan Efrony and Yuval Shany (2018), “ A Rule Book on the Shelf? Tallinn Manual 2.0 on Cyberoperations and Subsequent State Practice” AJIL 112:4

[31] Arindrajit Basu and Elonnai Hickok (2018), “Conceptualizing an International Security architecture for cyberspace”.

[32] Monica Hakimi (2017), “The Work of International Law,” Harvard International Law Journal 58:1.

[33] James Maxwell and Forrest Briscoe (2007),” There’s money in the air: The CFC Ban and Dupont’s Regulatory Strategy” Business Strategy and the Environment 6, 276-286.

[34] Francis Buignon (2004). “The International Committee of the Red Cross and the development of international humanitarian law.” Chi. J. Int’l L.5: 19137

[35] Jeremy Wright, “Cyber and International Law in the 21st Century” Govt. UK.

[36] Michael Schmitt, “France’s Major Statement on International Law and Cyber: An Assessment” Just Security, September 16th, 2019.

[37] Nele Achten, "Germany’s Position on International Law in Cyberspace”, Lawfare, Oct 2, 2018,

[38] Michael Schmitt, “Estonia Speaks out on Key Rules for Cyberspace” Just Security, June 10, 2019.



[41] Justin Sherman and Arindrajit Basu, "Fostering Strategic Convergence in US-India Tech Relations: 5G and Beyond”, The Diplomat, July 03, 2019.

[42] Aditi Agrawal, "India and Tech Policy at the G20 Summit”, Medianama, Jul 1, 2019.