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Ukraine: What Are the Likely Implications for Norms and Discussions in Cyberspace?

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia on 24 February, and the events since, have shocked and horrified the world. The immediate focus must be on protecting the safety, security and human rights of the Ukrainian population. But we can already see how the war will also impact broader global events, discussions and behaviour, particularly relating to the digital environment.

This is not the first war in the digital age. But the role played by digital technologies and tech companies in the conflict is in many ways unprecedented.

What’s new about the conflict?

The war in Ukraine is a kinetic war with hybrid elements—including the use of cyberattacks on critical infrastructure, strict controls over information and disinformation campaigns. While cyberattacks have not played as strong a role as some expected, they are not absent; and the US deployment of a ‘cyber mission’ to Ukraine (read: espionage) brings to light ongoing questions around the application of international law in cyberspace including during times of conflict. The US may not have ‘boots on the ground’ but it is, with its cybermission teams, directly supporting the Ukrainian side, highlighting questions about who can qualify as a ‘co-combatant’ in cyberspace; about what kind of behaviour is permissible, and what crosses thresholds, including in times of conflict. What kind of precedent will this set for future conflicts and the evolution of international law?

Meanwhile, the internet has become an information battleground. On 5 March, Russia passed a law making the dissemination of ‘fake news’ about the Russian military illegal, amid a crackdown on all independent media in the country. It is also using disinformation as a strategic weapon both internally and abroad, prompting a range of responses by online platforms such as Netflix, Google, Tik Tok, Twitter and Meta.

These measures include the blocking of Russian government-owned media outlets such as RT and Sputnik on YouTube within the European Union, the halting of streaming services within Russia (Netflix), blocks on advertisements in Russia and Ukraine in order to elevate ‘critical public safety information’ (Twitter) and the takedown of disinformation (Twitter and Meta).

In this rapidly changing context, it’s hard to know what social media platforms will do next and how this will impact rights to access information. This is concerning because, as with the involvement of allies in Ukraine through cybermissions, it could create a precedent for how social media companies behave in future conflicts. And it’s not just social media companies: a growing number of other non-state actors are becoming involved in the war, including hackers and technology companies like Microsoft—raising questions around how they should be treated under international law and the impacts they may have on human rights.In other words, the conflict has thrown into sharp relief some of the gaps in international law that exist when it comes to the roles and responsibilities of third parties, while also revealing how integral they are to addressing the use of digital tech within conflict, minimising damage and strengthening systems. Yet, consensus on what the roles of those actors should be becomes ever more difficult in multilateral forums where Russia’s invasion is deepening geopolitical fault-lines and stalling the negotiation of international frameworks.

Implications for international discussions

Local implications notwithstanding, the conflict is having a serious and likely long-term impact on discussions in multilateral forums as Russia risks becoming increasingly isolated. In a striking example of the international community’s efforts to distance themselves from the country, about 100 diplomats walked out as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov took the floor at the 1 March session of the United Nations Human Rights Council on disarmament. Some NGOs have called on the UNGA to suspend Russia’s membership of the UN Human Rights Council. While Russia cannot feasibly be removed from the world’s largest multilateral body, the UN, its rights of representation have been suspended at the Council of Europe, which will impact ongoing discussions on regulatory instruments related to digital technology, including a binding legal instrument on AI.

Ongoing consensus-based cyber discussions at the UN—the Open Ended Working Group on responsible state behaviour in cyberspace and the Ad Hoc Committee on Cybercrime (AHC)—will both be affected. Numerous state interventions at the first meeting of the AHC, (although admittedly mainly from states in the Western Grouping) have decried the Ukraine conflict. Russia is also putting forward a candidate for Secretary General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a body where geopolitical tensions shaped by different visions of the role of the state in internet governance have long played a role. If Russia were isolated at the ITU, this could help states in pushing back against proposals to extend the ITU’s mandate in internet governance.

What is the likely outcome? The undermining of trust makes it extremely unlikely that consensus will be reached in these processes in the near future. Moreover, conflict will affect alliances, including within the UN. It will be interesting to see how states outside the West, particularly in Asia and Africa, respond—whether through abstaining, outright condemnation, or support for the invasion. The recent General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s invasion gives some indication: the vast majority (141 of 193 member states) voted for it, but 35 abstained and five voted against. Among those who abstained were a number of African and Asian countries (notably China, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh), potentially highlighting newly strengthened alliances between these countries and China.

With the war still ongoing, few firm conclusions can be drawn about its long term implications. But for stakeholders engaged in discussions around cooperation in cyberspace, one thing is clear: what happens in the coming weeks may set precedents which shape government and corporate behaviour in conflicts for years to come.

By Sheetal Kumar, Head of Global Engagement and Advocacy at Global Partners Digital

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