Power Politics Could Impede Progress on Responsible Regulation of Cyberspace

A new Chatham House paper examines the prospects of countries reaching agreement on issues of sovereignty and non-intervention in cyberspace in the face of persistent, low-level, state-to-state cyber attacks.

Expert comment Updated 26 August 2021 Published 3 December 2019 3 minute READ
A computer hacked by a virus known as Petya. The Petya ransomware cyberattack hit computers of Russian and Ukrainian companies on 27 June 2017. Photo: Getty Images.

A computer hacked by a virus known as Petya. The Petya ransomware cyberattack hit computers of Russian and Ukrainian companies on 27 June 2017. Photo: Getty Images.

In discussions to date about how international law applies in cyberspace, commentators have tended to focus their attention on how the rules on the use of force, or the law of armed conflict, apply to cyber activities conducted by states that give rise to physical damage, injury or death.

But in practice, the vast majority of state cyberattacks fall below this threshold. Far more common are persistent, low-level attacks that may leave no physical trace but that are capable of doing significant damage to a state’s ability to control its systems, often at serious economic cost.

Such cyber incursions might include network disruptions in the operation of another government’s websites; tampering with electoral infrastructure to change or undermine the result; or using cyber means to destabilize another state’s financial sector.

For these kinds of cyber operation, the principle of sovereignty, and the principle of non-intervention in another state’s internal affairs, are the starting point.

A UN Group of Government Experts (GGE) agreed in 2013 and 2015 that the principles in the UN Charter, including sovereignty and the prohibition on intervention in another state’s affairs, apply to states’ activities in cyberspace. The 2015 GGE also recommended eleven (non-binding) norms of responsible state behaviour in cyberspace.

However, states have not yet reached agreement on how to apply these principles. Until recently, there has also been very little knowledge of what states actually do in cyberspace, as they usually conduct cyber operations covertly and have been reluctant to put their views on record.

A new Chatham House research paper analyses the application of the principles of sovereignty and non-intervention to state cyberattacks that fall below the principle of use of force. As well as analysing the application of the law in this area, the paper also makes recommendations to governments on how they might best make progress in reaching agreement in this area.

Existing rules or new rules?

As the research paper makes clear, there is currently some debate, principally between countries in the West, about the extent to which sovereignty is a legally binding rule in the context of cyberspace and, if so, how it and the principle of non-intervention might apply in practice.

In the last few years, certain states have put on record how they consider international law to apply to states’ activities in cyberspace, namely the UK, Australia, France and the Netherlands. While there may be some differences in their approaches, which are discussed in the paper, there also remains important common ground: namely, that existing international law already provides a solid framework for regulating states’ cyber activities, as it regulates every other domain of state-to-state activity.

There is also an emerging trend for states to work together when attributing cyberattacks to hostile states, enabling them to call out malign cyber activity when it violates international law. (See, for example, the joint statements made in relation to the NotPetya cyber attack and malicious cyber activity attributed to the Russian government).

However, other countries have questioned whether existing international law as it stands is capable of regulating states’ cyber interactions and have called for ‘new legal instruments’ in this area.

This includes a proposal by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (led by Russia and China) for an International Code of Conduct on Information Security, a draft of which was submitted to the UN in 2011 and 2015, without success. The UN has also formed a new Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) under a resolution proposed by Russia to consider how international law applies to states’ activities in cyberspace.

The resolution establishing the OEWG, which began work earlier this year, includes the possibility of the group ‘introducing changes to the rules, norms and principles of responsible behaviour of States’ agreed in the 2013 and 2015 GGE reports. In the OEWG discussions at the UN in September, several countries claimed that a new legal instrument was needed to fill the ‘legal vacuum’ (Cuba) or ‘the gap of ungoverned areas’ (Indonesia).

It would be concerning if the hard-won consensus on the application of international law to cyberspace that has been reached at past GGEs started to unravel. In contrast to 2013 and 2015, the 2017 meeting failed to reach an agreement.

On 9 December, a renewed GGE will meet in New York, but the existence of the OEWG exploring the same issues in a separate process reflects the fact that cyber norms have become an area of geopolitical rivalry.

Aside from the application of international law, states are also adopting divergent approaches to the domestic regulation of cyberspace within their own territory. The emerging trend towards a ‘splinternet’ – i.e. between states that believe the internet should be global and open on the hand, and those that favour a ‘sovereignty and control’ model on the other – is also likely to make discussions at the GGE more challenging.

Distinct from the international law concept of sovereignty is the notion of ‘cybersovereignty’, a term coined by China to describe the wide-ranging powers it assumes under domestic law to regulate its citizens’ access to the internet and personal data within its territory. This approach is catching on (as reflected in Russia’s recently enacted ‘Sovereign Internet Law’), with other authoritarian states likely to follow suit.

The importance of non-state actors

In parallel with regional and UN discussions on how international law applies, a number of initiatives by non-state actors have also sought to establish voluntary principles about responsible state behaviour in cyberspace.

The Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace, a multi-stakeholder body that has proposed principles, norms and recommendations to guide responsible behaviour by all parties in cyberspace, recently published its final report. The Cybersecurity Tech Accord aims to promote collaboration between tech companies on stability and resilience in cyberspace. President Macron’s ‘Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace’ has to date received the backing of 67 states, 139 international and civil society organizations, and 358 private-sector organizations.

It remains to be seen in the long term whether the parallel processes at the UN will work constructively together or be competitive. But notwithstanding the challenging geopolitical backdrop, the UN GGE meeting next week at the least offers states the opportunity to consolidate and build on the results of past meetings; to increase knowledge and discussion about how international law might apply; and to encourage more states to put their own views of these issues on the record.