“The big picture is that Russia and China are seeking to establish a set of global norms that support their view of how the Internet and information should be controlled,” said a European official, who like others interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue. “They’re using every means they can in the U.N. and elsewhere to promote that. This is not about cybercrime. This is about who controls the Internet.”
The move comes as the United States and Western Europe are battling Russian efforts to use the Internet to undermine democratic institutions and Chinese cybertheft of intellectual property.
Russia has framed the treaty as an alternative to the Budapest Convention, a 2001 treaty whose aim is to foster international cooperation in cybercrime matters and that is subject to rule of law and human rights safeguards.
Russia has criticized the treaty as an infringement on state sovereignty. Despite the fact that 64 nations, including the United States, Japan, Morocco, Costa Rica and all but two of the European Union states have ratified the treaty, a Russian Federation official at the United Nations, Maria Zabolotskaya, has argued the global community has no “full-fledged international legal basis for cooperation” on cybercrime. Russia and China have not joined the Budapest treaty.
The battle at the United Nations is really for the votes of developing countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America, analysts said. Though a U.N. treaty would not be binding for members who do not sign and ratify it, State Department officials fear its creation would give authoritarian states such as Russia and China a global U.N.-endorsed standard they can point to, a State Department official said. “That’s what they’re shooting for,” the official said.
“Is the African Internet going to be built out according to the Sino-Russian view of the Internet or the Western view?” said Steven Wilson, an assistant professor at the University of Nevada at Reno who runs the independent Digital Society Project. “In the long run that has dramatic implications for democracy and free speech. If the Sino-Russian model prevails, that’s handing a tool kit to future authoritarian regimes.”
Russia’s goal for more than two decades has been to achieve a global treaty that establishes principles of sovereignty in cyberspace. This month, a “sovereign Internet” law took effect, allowing the Russian government to block Internet traffic from outside Russia “in an emergency” and to require Internet service providers to install software that can filter and reroute traffic, part of an effort to establish what one U.S. official called a “digital Iron Curtain.”
The sovereignty debate has been most active in the realm of national security, where U.N. member states have for years debated norms governing cyberespionage and cyberwarfare and where Western officials have for the moment succeeded in keeping the Sino-Russian approach from prevailing.
The resolution at the United Nations is sponsored by Russia, China, North Korea, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Syria, Cambodia, Venezuela and Belarus. Titled “Countering the use of information and communications technologies for criminal purposes,” the three-page document contains unobjectionable statements about the rise in digital crimes and their impact on the stability of critical infrastructure.
But it does not define how digital technologies are used for criminal purposes, an omission that “opens the door to criminalizing ordinary online behavior that is protected under international human rights law,” wrote a coalition of human rights groups in a letter to the General Assembly, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Privacy International.
The resolution calls on the U.N. to set up a committee of experts that would convene in August 2020 in New York to draft terms of reference to guide the writing of a treaty.
Thomas Wingfield, acting chancellor at the National Defense University’s College of Information and Cyberspace, said that the endeavor by Russia and China threatens not only to balkanize cyberspace, but also to provide cover for criminals who “can reach us — can reach everyone — from positions of sanctuary.”