The resolution creates a drafting group to create terms of reference for a global “cybercrime” treaty. But the cybercrimes of primary concern here aren’t hacking attacks, privacy violations or identity thefts. Instead, this treaty is intended to create international law that would make it easier for countries to cooperate to repress political dissent.
The big takeaway? Russia and China have become better at using international rules and norms to promote their aims.
Pundits and experts have tended to think about multilateral institutions — such as the U.N. — as a lever to get nations to accept liberal rules about human rights, and the protection of free speech and minorities. But outcomes like the Russian cybercrime resolution and current developments in the U.N. General Assembly First Committee, where many Internet governance discussions are occurring, demonstrate that Moscow and Beijing are becoming far more skilled in using procedural rules and practices to advance their agendas.
How authoritarians use the Internet — and multilateral institutions
Authoritarian governments have been using claims of fighting cybercrime and cyberterrorism as cover for Internet censorship and clampdowns for many years. But a range of recent developments has helped these efforts bear fruit. The Snowden revelations about U.S. global surveillance and hacking programs, and attendant hypocrisy costs for the United States, for instance, undermined U.S. claims that the Internet lies outside state control. Further, the tarnishing of the democratic Internet model — as countries realize the risks of Internet openness, such as disinformation or global ransomware attacks — has combined with regime shifts away from liberal democracy to compound decreased support for an open Internet.
All the while, there’s an absence of U.S. leadership on Internet freedom, as part of broader retractions of American diplomatic arms. All these factors matter, but there’s also a more subtle explanation: Authoritarian governments have become more adept at turning multilateral diplomacy toward their own ends.
The prevailing view in international relations has been that multilateral diplomacy is so closely connected with liberal democracy that it effectively has liberal DNA, giving a big structural advantage to liberal democracies in multilateral negotiations. This is like the early democratic view of the Internet, where politicians claimed the Internet was inherently open and democratic.
The problem, as Mark Raymond discusses in his book “Social Practices of Rule-Making in World Politics,” is that contemporary diplomacy is about rules rather than democratic rhetoric. This means that authoritarian regimes, too, can practice and master the skills for global rulemaking. Russia’s success in pushing through this U.N. resolution defending a “sovereign and controlled” view of the Internet is a prime example of what we call “authoritarian multilateralism,” or the use of ostensibly liberal-democratic multilateral institutions to advance illiberal agendas and values.
A previous Russian effort to introduce a pro-sovereignty cybercrime resolution saw democracies like Brazil, Nigeria and India side with China, Russia, Iran and others in support of Internet sovereignty norms — voting against the United States, Britain, Australia, France and many other liberal democracies. This year, authoritarian efforts persisted.
What does this mean for Internet freedom?
The 2019 resolution creates an expert group to draft terms of reference for a multilateral treaty. This puts countries committed to Internet openness in an awkward position. If they join the drafting group, they undermine their own principled opposition to the resolution creating it, advancing the Russian and Chinese agenda.
But if the United States and other champions of an open Internet boycott the process, authoritarian regimes will be free to shape the treaty’s terms of reference in ways that advance digital authoritarianism even more. The 2019 resolution also effectively employs norms of Internet sovereignty to criticize an existing treaty, the Budapest Convention on Cybercrime, advancing the “fighting of cybercrime” in ways that facilitate information control and suppression of political dissidents.
Authoritarian multilateralism is shaping Internet governance within other institutions as well. Following a 2013 U.N. Group of Governmental Experts (UNGGE) report, which affirmed the notion that existing international law applies to state military use of cyberspace, Russia and China have creatively employed procedural rules to shape the U.N. cybersecurity agenda on military use of information technology.
Here’s an example: Russia and China criticized the UNGGE for not being open and inclusive enough, and built support for a parallel process, the Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG). Although the U.N. also authorized a new GGE, the OEWG is open to all members, enabling Russia and China to use an emerging majority of governments in favor of an authoritarian Internet majority to shape U.N. deliberations on cybersecurity in a way the GGE did not permit. Like the cybercrime resolution, the OEWG mandate also refers to renewed attempts to pursue a multilateral treaty.
These institutional fights may reshape the Internet
International institutions have become a battleground for fights between a “global and open” Internet model and a “sovereign and controlled” approach. As Justin Sherman’s research suggests, this means countries that are indecisive, or trying to blend the two approaches — or that lack the means to evaluate complex policies — have become an important swing vote in debates over the future of the Internet.
Much of the politics will play out at the national level. But at the global level, Russia and China are advancing their Internet model within and alongside the existing liberal international order. This leaves democracies grappling with the tensions in their approach to Internet governance — while countries like the United States are losing support for the concept of a truly global and open Internet. Russia’s successful U.N. proposal is just the latest evidence of how authoritarian regimes are getting better at using multilateral institutions to advance their approach to the Internet.
Justin Sherman (@jshermcyber) is a cybersecurity policy fellow at New America.