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The Darkening Web: Is there Light at the end of the Tunnel?

In his book “The Darkening Web: The War for Cyberspace” (Penguin Books, New York 2017), Alexander Klimburg, an Austrian-American academic, gives “Internet Dreamers” a “Wake Up Call”. He tells us the background-story why people start to be “anxious about the future of the Internet”, as the recent ISOC Global Internet Report “Paths to Our Digital Future” has recognized. Klimburg refers to Alphabets CEO Erich Schmidt, who once said that “the Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity does not understand”.

A Book of Dreams

Klimburg has labeled his book a “book of dreams.” He could have called it also a “book of broken dreams.” More than 20 years ago, the dream of visionaries like John Peter Barlow was, that the “promised land” of the 21st century is the cyberspace. “We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth. We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity” so Barlow in his “Davos Declaration of Cyberindependence”. Already ten years later, Harvard´s Jonathan Zittrain dropped some water into the wine by sending an early warning in his book “The Future of the Internet and how to stop it.” Now, the future has arrived. And Klimburg argues that we have to readjust our dreams. He is not without hope. But—viewing our planet earth from an eagle’s perspective—the reality is that the road to paradise is crossed by some highways to hell.

The Evils of Cyberspace

Klimburg takes us on a tour to visit the evils of cyberspace: Cybercrime, Cyberterrorism and Cyberwar; Censorship, Mass Surveillance and Fakenews. He has collected all the “bad news” from the last 40 years and shows us the arsenal, what could happen, if the unmeasurable opportunities of the digital revolution come into the wrong hands: I Love Virus, Stuxnet, Cyberattacks against Estonia, DDoS, Ransomware, Killer Apps, Lethal Autonomous Weapons, and, and and… The good thing in his book is that he puts this dark side of the Internet not only into the historical context of the Internet development itself since the times of ARPANET, but also into the broader political context of global geo-politics and the never-ending struggle between big powers. This does not change the real threats, but it helps us to understand better what is going on and why.

He argues that a military cyberattack against the critical infrastructure of a country could have disastrous consequences, could ruin a national economy and put a democratic society into total chaos. The window of vulnerability of a network society is growing with the level of connectivity in a country. The incalculable risk with cyberwar is, that we have an imbalance between offense and defense. Such an imbalance never before existed in military scenarios. In cyberspace, it is cheap to attack but expensive to defend. This also makes the difference, if one compares cyberwar and nuclear war. In the nuclear age, there was a balance of power among the big players with a safeguard called “Mutual Assured Destruction” (MAD). Such a MAD does not exist in cyberspace. A cyberwar could be a hybrid process, very decentralized and with different layers. And its target would not be primarily “death and destruction”, as we know it from conventional wars. Chaos and collapse of institutions on the enemy side could create enough damage to get supremacy in such a conflict. But it could come even worse. Klimburg writes: “The worst possible cyberevent may not be, that the lights go out, but they will never go out, that we will slip into a totally controlled environment of Orwellian proportions.”

This is, unfortunately, not new, but Klimburgs book summarizes all the arguments and links it to the challenges for global diplomacy. Insofar he reflects the contemporary “Zeitgeist”: In 2016 the Bildt Commission on Global Internet Governance argued that “the future of the Internet hangs in the balance” and offered, among others, a “worst case scenario,” very close to Klimburgs conclusions. Dan Schiller has titled his 2015 book “Digital Depression.” Nathan Persifly from Stanford has asked recently in the “Washington Post”: “Will Democracy Survive the Internet”? Vint Cerf told the Irish Broadcasting Corporation that basic things in human behavior have not changed since Shakespeare. All the human drama of the middle ages are reappearing in the 21st century. And Jeff Moss recognized at the BlackHat Conference in Las Vegas in July 2017 that the past is back. 25 years ago, he said, the technical people dreamed of a new world without governments. But when new business models emerged, the new big money also pulled criminals into the cyberspace, followed by the governments who wanted to get the bad guys. Welcome back to the bad old times.

“We should not be surprised that bad behaviours from the offline world are seeping into the online world” states ISOCs Global Internet Report. But ISOC adds, that the “core values and technical properties of the Intertnet remain as important as ever”. And it calls for actions “to ensure that the future Internet remains user centric, that it upholds and reasserts our freedoms and rights and that it continues to work for the benefit of all.”

The Dilemma of a Global Cyber Diplomacy

Klimburg’s book takes us not only to the visible places were we can see the potential disasters, but also to the mainly unvisible spaces, where policy is developed and decisions are made. He analyzes governmental Internet policies in the US, in Russia and China and covers the main global Internet negotiations, where governmental and non-governmental stakeholders are trying to find balanced solutions to stabilize the cyberspace and to pave the way for future prosperous developments, for “best case scenarios”.

Klimburg makes clear that today’s global internet diplomacy is probably the most complicated chapter in the whole diplomatic history. Negotiators have to struggle not only with the “usual procedures” they have established for negotiations on climate change, trade pacts or arms control. In the Internet world, everything is connected with everything. Negotiations on cybersecurity cannot be isolated from negotiations on eTrade and will affect negotiations on human rights like privacy or freedom expression. All this complicates the drafting of norms for good governmental behavior in cyberspace or the clarification of the slippery issue of attribution, that is to find out, where a cyberattack comes from. The dilemma of Cyber-Negotiators is that they have to discuss liquid issues where the resources, they are fighting for, are virtual, and the future trends are undefined. The decentralization, diversity, and anonymity of the multilayered, multiplayered Internet, which is one of its strengths, is at the same time also one of its weaknesses. It offers tremendous opportunities, but it also opens the door for misuse.

Klimburg is very clear that the only way forward is to build more trust and confidence, both among governments and among all involved stakeholders. The political negotiations in organisations like the United Nations, the WSIS with its IGF, the OSCE and others and the development of technical ressources in mechanisms like IETF, ICANN, W3C, RIRs and others have created an Internet Governance Ecosystem which is much bigger than the multilateral system which emerged after World War II.

Klimburg has no “Silverbullet”. It will take some time to draft workable frameworks in such a dynamic multistakeholder environment which can keep the cyberspace free and stable and get the bad guys under control. The Internet was and is a “Grand Collaboration”, based on mutual trust. If this trust goes lost, the global Internet will fragment and the side effects of such a collapse will have far-reaching consequences for the economy, the culture and the whole society around the whole globe.

Moving towards a “Digital Desaster”?

An old joke defines a pessimist as a “well informed optimist”. Will the “Darkening Web” pull us into a “Dark Decade”? There is indeed a growing number of pseudo-realists, which argue, that we are moving towards a big “digital disaster”. The pseudo-argument is that all revolutions of the past triggered a disaster 25 years later. 25 years after the French Revolution, there was the Battle of Waterloo, followed by the Vienna Congress and a phase of relative stable decades with some prosperity. 25 years after the Russian Revolution, there was the Battle of Stalingrad followed by the creation of the United Nations and another decade of relative stability and prosperity. Wouldn’t it by crazy—25 years after the “Information Revolution”—to wait for a “Digital Hiroshima” to have the next phase of stability and prosperity?

Klimburgs book is also a book of hope. His very precise analysis shows us, there is space for a peaceful settlement of conflicts, there is space for arrangements, agreements and confidence building measures. It is true that there are different national interests, different national cultures, different historical experiences and even different value systems. But guided by the universal values of the United Nations, its Charter, and the Human Rights Declaration, there are a lot of opportunities to build bridges as long as there is a political will.

In the 20th century, governments were nearly the only players in global policymaking. But in the 21st century, the political ecosystem has changed and next to governments there is now a broad variety of global players active in this space: from business and civil society to the technical and academic community. All they have a “stake”, are participating in global policy making and call for a multistakeholder approach.

It is interesting to note that a G7 Ministerial Meeting in Torino recently reiterated “the commitment to support the multistakeholder approach to Internet governance, consistent with the Internet Governance Principles resulting from the NETmundial Multistakeholder meeting held in Sao Paulo in 2014”. And even the five leaders of the BRICS countries did recognize in their “Xiamen Declaration” from September 5, 2017: “We believe that all states should participate on an equal footing in the evolution and functioning of the Internet and its governance, bearing in mind the need to involve relevant stakeholders in their respective roles and responsibilities”. There are certainly more than nuances between the G7—and the BRICS—approaches to Internet Governance. However, there are some “bit and bytes” where both sides could find common language.

To promote the multistakeholder approach and to build bridges among adversaries is also the mission of the new Global Commission on Stability in Cyberspace (GCSC) which was created in spring 2017 under the chairwomanship of Marina Kaljarund, a former Foreign Minister of Estonia. Klimburg was one of the main drivers behind the making of the Commission and he functions now as its Co-Secretary. It is a good opportunity for an author of such a caliber to test how his vision can be translated into real action. So let’s hope that the light at the end of the tunnel is not the laser pistol of a killing robot.

By Wolfgang Kleinwächter, Professor Emeritus at the University of Aarhus

He is a member of the Global Commission on Stability in Cyberspace, was a member of the ICANN Board (2013 – 2015) and served as Special Ambassador for the Net Mundial Initiative (2014 – 2016).

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Too Many Voices, Too Few Resources Michael Roberts  –  Oct 18, 2017 5:04 PM

In medieval times, every Duke built his own walled castle, leading to hilltop fortresses scattered here and there. One of the challenges in Wolfgang’s analysis is designing a more secure and trusted Internet that benefits everyone, and allocating the resources to make it happen. It won’t be a technical monoculture, this is not a “one size fits all” situation.

As the saying goes, “if it was easy, we would have already done it.” Unfortunately, superpower politics being what they are, a balanced approach with necessary resources is not going to come from govts. Which makes it very important that the industry/academic research collaboration which marked the early days of the Internet be revived and supported. ISOC’s recent steps are a positive sign.

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