The Securitization, Nationalization and Contestation of Cyberspace

Cyberspace has often been compared to the wild wild west—as a new frontier with no rules, no authority. But this is quickly changing: governments across the world are increasing cybersecurity budgets, strengthening public-private partnerships to secure the domain, and turning to one another to draw lessons on how best to regulate the space and combat their own understanding of “the cyber threat.” This is illustrated by the events of this week.

The United Kingdom government has announced that the GBP 650 million delegated to the National Cyber Security Programme will be used to prop up four pillars of the programme: national cybersecurity, cyberdefense of critical infrastructure, countering cybercrime, and improving education and skills. 65 per cent of the funds will be allocated to increasing capabilities. Meanwhile, in the United States, defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. was granted a USD 71.5 million cybersecurity contract with the US Navy. This is the company’s second contract of the year with the Navy—the first was awarded in late January, also worth USD 71.5 million—and is contributing to the emergence of the cyber-military industrial complex.

In Russia—following cyber attacks on LiveJournal and opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta (as we documented here two weeks ago)—authorities are expressing concern over the lack of Internet regulation in the country. As a result, a state tender released this week is calling for researchers to look at “foreign experience in regulating” the Internet. A spokesperson for Prime Minister Putin followed up by stating that state researchers would begin studying best practices in online regulation from countries such as China.

Meanwhile, Iran has announced that it will assert its sovereignty over cyberspace via the creation of a nationalized cyberspace—a “halal Internet”—to combat Western influence of the space and to potentially decouple from the open Internet. The head of economic affairs in Iran announced to the state run news agency, IRNA, that Iran “will soon create an internet that conforms to Islamic principles, to improve its communication and trade links with the world.” This new network may eventually replace the open Internet. It has been reported that authorities have praised China’s Internet policy—an indication that the government, like its Russian counterpart, is lesson drawing from the country.

Increasingly, like-minded countries sharing similar concerns appear to be turning towards one another to seek out best practices, policy innovations, and solutions as pertaining to cyberspace (for instance, the Iranian and Chinese state have both expressed concern about Western hegemony over the space). The emergence of online controls as a “norm” has given rise to a contestation of norms in cyberspace. In what appears to be a promotion of normative change, the United States announced just this week that it is set to dedicate USD 28 million in new grants (to go towards projects such as circumvention/anonymity tools) to online activists—particularly in countries with major cyber controls.

In the past, US promotion of “net freedom” has been met with suspicion. Following Hillary Clinton’s 2010 “Internet freedom” speech, Chinese authorities accused the United States of information imperialism. In this case, a Chinese op-ed stated: “countries disadvantaged by the unequal and undemocratic information flow have to protect their national interest, and take steps toward this. This is essential for their political stability as well as normal conduct of economic and social life. These facts about the difficulties of developing nations, though understood by politicians like Clinton, are not communicated to the people of Western countries. Instead, those politicians publicize and pursue their claims purely from a Western standpoint.”

Like the idea of humanitarian intervention, Internet freedom promotion may be seen as a disguised form of aggressive Western imperialism by some. As Ma Zhaoxu of the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated after Clinton’s speech, “We urge the US to respect facts and stop attacking China under the excuse of the so-called freedom of Internet.” We can expect to see continued contestation over such meanings.