Digital Disintegration and the Case For Cyber Governance

It is that time of year, when the eyes of all involved in international affairs turn to Davos, where the 2014 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting is taking place from 22-25 January.

As always, the small ski resort in Switzerland is packed with political leaders, business executives and key experts, gathered to address a broad range of geopolitical topics, from economic growth to social development. On the eve of this year’s summit the WEF released its Global Risks Report, outlining what it considers the most pressing issues facing our ever-more connected societies. The report indicates 31 risks, ranked via a survey of the WEF’s multi-stakeholder communities according to the level of concern, likelihood and impact.

Additionally, three risks have been identified as systemic and overarching, and are explored in more detail – one of which being ‘digital disintegration’ threatened by a lack of adequate internet governance. With this notion the Forum addresses a vitally important issue: potential internet granulation if we do not address how to achieve comprehensive, long-term cyber governance.

A Real Risk?

The lack of cohesive cyber governance is not mentioned explicitly in the top ten risks indicated in the report (‘global governance failure’ ranks 7th). The respondents perceived financial crises and structurally high unemployment as the highest risks of 2014, followed by water crises, income disparity and failure of climate change mitigation. These issues are rightfully high on the international agenda and in comparison inadequate cyber governance may seem trivial, even futuristic.

In reality, however, systemic disagreements on the governance of cyberspace combined with protectionist attitudes is a growing concern that affects us all. The exponential use of digital means of communication has rapidly increased our dependence on cyberspace. Whether at home or the office, more devices are ‘going online’, connecting more information and deepening the complexity of digital interactions. The pace of technological innovation is staggering. The average mobile phone now easily exceeds the computing capabilities of the 1969 Apollo XI spacecraft.

Despite these advancements, greater connectivity risks disruptions that are harder to predict. So far, major disruptions have been held off, largely due to robust networks. A ‘Cyber Pearl Harbor’ as predicted by former US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta remains unlikely. A ‘Cybergeddon’, named as worst case scenario by the WEF in its report, is not the most pressing threat. More worrying in the short and medium term are theft, abuse and the misuse of online available data. Such misuse can range from corporate theft to gain strategic advancements, to infringements on individual privacy by covertly accessing supposedly protected data. Troels Oerting, head of the European Cybercrime Centre,emphasized thatcybercrime has no borders; it can be committed from anywhere against anywhere”.

Digital Disintegration

In response, governments and companies are expanding their IT departments, strengthening their networks by building firewalls and erecting incident response teams to increase their cyber resilience. Fighting cybercrime has definitely become a focal point for many law enforcement agencies, and international cooperation is increasing. Additionally, public awareness of cyber risks has increased (so called ‘cyber hygiene’). But in the end most of these are reactive mechanisms: we are all in the same cyber ship but are pumping the water out instead of addressing how to prevent breaches of the hull.

This does not mean that discussions about the role of governments in the cyber domain are not taking place. Revelations about the role of national security organizations have triggered a wide range of responses. The danger lies in the nature of the solutions proposed. In protecting information of their citizens, a growing constituency proposes protectionist measures like shielding off parts of a state’s networks from the rest of the world, and the WEF report warns for “increasing erosion – or eventual breakdown – of international trust” if these plans come to fruition. Fragmentation of the internet would strike at the very core of an open and free internet society that is considered essential to modern democracies, and put at risk economic advancements largely accomplished due to increased globalization.

Addressing Cyber Governance

How to go forward? A strategic vision on cyberspace should focus on the long-term and include key stakeholders from all sectors – government, business and civil society. It is encouraging to see an increasing number of states addressing cyber security in a stakeholder-based approach. Additionally, countries like the Netherlands have signaled their interest in achieving a framework on cyber governance that incorporates rules and best practices. The Dutch Ministry of Security & Justice engages directly with business and civil society actors in the National Cyber Security Center.

Effective solutions have to be transnational, as cyberspace disregards national borders. Independent organizations can play a key role, shaping policies via interdisciplinary research. In that spirit, President Obama, in his recent address on national security, was right to emphasize building trust as a main tool. The heart of the digital system as it stands should remain secured: A sustainable, democratic society recognizes the importance of accessible online communications, and cannot function around a restricted cyber network.

This year’s World Economic Forum can set the stage for a meaningful debate on cyber governance, and the events shall certainly be watched closely by all of us involved in efforts to improve effective global cyber governance. An meaningful step was taken this morning, when Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt announced a major two-year inquiry focused on issues of internet freedom and digital privacy, in cooperation with Chatham House and the Center for International Governance. Patricia Lewis from Chatham House commented appropriately: “This is a debate we sorely need’”.

The issues discussed above are among those that will be addressed through the flagship project of The Hague Institute’s Global Governance Program –The Global Governance Reform Initiative. Experts from different sectors and a range of countries will gather to deliberate upon how the global governance of cyberspace can be improved and, to this end, propose feasible policy recommendations.

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Cyber Governance

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