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World Economic Forum Davos 2022: War in Ukraine, Metaverse und Splinternet

The war in Ukraine, Metaverse and Splinternet were among the most discussed items during the recent World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos.

The topic of cyber security was primarily about the role of cyberattacks in the Ukraine war. Cyber is not the focus of day-to-day public war reporting but is an integral part of warfare on both sides. This applies above all to the use of “social media.” Ukrainian president Wlodomir Selensky has introduced a new dimension, how to use the Internet to tell his story to the rest of the world in a real war. The Russians have blocked nearly all western media, including social websites, to distribute their own narrative. And there are many private videos that create a special “info-sphere” outside of government-controlled media reporting.

In the various panels, it was reported that next to the propaganda war, numerous cyberattacks are directly or indirectly linked to the military fighting: classic DDoS attacks (primarily on public institutions such as ministries and the media), attacks on critical infrastructure (satellite connections) and the use of autonomous weapon systems (drones). It is still too early to assess the effectiveness of so-called “cyber weapons.” However, it has become clear that cyber is not an isolated, independent area in a military conflict—something like a separated “cyberwar”—but it is integrated into military operations by land, sea and air forces. Jen Easterly, Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security (CISA) of the US, made it clear that strengthening Ukraine’s cyber defenses is an indispensable component of military aid packages for the country under attack.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg mentioned also “vulnerabilities” for democracies, which can emerge by “exporting advanced technologies, like Artificial Intelligence, and weakened resilience caused by foreign control over critical infrastructure, like 5G.” And he added: “International trade has undoubtedly brought great prosperity. I, and many of us here today, have worked hard to promote a more globalized economy, but we must recognize that our economic choices have consequences for our security. Freedom is more important than free trade. The protection of our values is more important than profit.

Cybercrime

In the civil sector, it was primarily cybercrime. Cybercrime continues to grow rapidly. The best way to counteract it is to increase hardware and software security. Criminals lived from their weak points. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella called for “zero tolerance” for such bugs when developing new digital products and services. “Security by design” is the order of the day. So-called “backdoors” to facilitate criminal prosecution in cyberspace were rejected. Backdoors are counterproductive and create more problems than it solves.

The negotiations on international norms for the behavior of states in cyberspace, a UN convention against cybercrime and autonomous weapon systems were commented on with a certain skepticism, especially by the industry. Robert M. Lee, CEO of Dragos, referred to the Ukrainian war by arguing that norms of international law have certain limits. However, Ghada Waly, Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Vienna, countered that there is a growing consensus to combat criminal actors on a global scale regardless of political and ideological location, especially when it comes to Ransomware. A comparison was made with medieval piracy on the high seas. This piracy, often accompanied by so-called “letters of protection,” was only ended when the majority of states recognized that everyone would suffer under such a regime. The Paris Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1856 essentially ended this maritime piracy.

Jürgen Stock, Secretary-General of Interpol, called on businesses in particular to provide more detailed information about cyber attacks. There would be a large number of unreported cases. But you need the data to develop effective counter-strategies. The fewer law enforcement agencies know, the less chance of fighting cybercriminals. While large companies and governments have now developed a critical awareness of the lurking dangers, and are investing in cybersecurity and working closely with law enforcement officers, small and medium-sized companies, local administrations and individuals are often overwhelmed and completely inadequately prepared for the growing threats in cyberspace. Much more needs to be invested in capacity building.

Also Brad Smith, president of Microsoft, supported the approach to agree on political-legal frameworks to strengthen cybersecurity. He referred to the “Tech Accord” and the “Paris Call on Trust and Security in Cyberspace”, both supported by Microsoft, and underlined the need for multistakeholder collaboration in drafting global rules for an open and interoperable free cyberspace. Digital transformation and managing climate change has to go hand in hand. This was supported by Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, who advertised EU´s “green and digital deal”. She argued in favor of a “digital economy rulebook”. Some CEOs, mainly from the US, recognized the need for something like “smart regulation” but called for a “balanced approach” where the needed regulatory stability leaves enough space for innovative flexibility.

Metaverse

Almost everything in the discussion about the future of the digital economy revolved around Web3 and Metaverse. Pekka Lundmark, CEO of Nokia, predicted that with 6G in the 2030s, the smartphone would no longer be the most essential device in digital communication. With the Metaverse, people would become “digital twins,” and many smartphone functions would migrate to “finger chips” or “digital glasses.” Google CFO Ruth Porat announced a new version of translation software that allows simultaneous translation for communication between people speaking different languages via glasses or hearing aids.

A number of applications in the field of artificial intelligence, especially in connection with biometric recognition systems, were viewed with skepticism. There must be guarantees that such services are compatible with universal human rights. Human dignity is inviolable. The 2018 OECD Principles on AI and the 2021 UNESCO Recommendation on AI and Ethics are helpful tools, however, albeit on patient paper. Efforts by the EU and the Council of Europe to create legally binding instruments based on a risk-based approach are necessary but met with different reactions. Businesses, in particular, expressed skepticism about the envisaged certification procedures, which could result in bureaucracy that would be difficult to manage.

Another topic was the consequences of the breakup of global supply chains for digitization. On the one hand, globalization cannot be decoupled. Pandemics or climate change create an objective compulsion for global cooperation across political borders. On the other hand, possible vulnerabilities of global supply chains for the national economy would have to be reassessed and minimized. The concept of keeping supply chains as short as possible, i.e., organizing chip production in geographical proximity to device production, would not only reduce vulnerabilities but is also climate-friendly, as long transport routes would be eliminated, and the CO2 footprint would decrease. The President of the International Monetary Fund, Kristina Georgieva, referred to the unavoidable risks of such a change of course: “We learned from the corona lockdowns and the Ukraine war that our supply chains have to become more robust, which entails rising costs. So the days when globalization made for cheaper products and lower inflation may be over. But that doesn’t mean we should split the world into separate blocks. That would be an extreme solution that would make us all poorer. We must not revert to the Cold War era.”

Splinternet

With the future of the Internet, the question was whether the Internet would remain interoperable as a “network of networks” in which anyone, anytime, anywhere, can communicate with anyone, or whether it would break down into its individual components, i.e., become the “Splinternet.” On the one hand, the fragmentation of the Internet is a process that began years ago and is unstoppable, as shown by the emergence of “walled gardens” and “bubbles” and the growth of national legislation on data localization and securing digital sovereignty. However, these developments have so far taken place on the “application layer”.. The situation could become critical if such processes were to break through to the “transport layer,” i.e., the domain name system (DNS), the management of IP addresses, root servers and the development of Internet protocols.

These critical internet resources are like the “air of the internet.” And like in the real world, there is no “Chinese air” or “American air,” only “polluted air” or “clean air.” Keeping the management of these critical Internet resources out of the geopolitical disputes related to the Internet is, therefore, a strategic challenge for future global digital cooperation in which all stakeholders—governments, business, civil society, and technical community—must be equally involved in their respective roles.

At the end of April 2022, more than 60 governments in Washington spoke out against the fragmentation of the Internet and in favor of the “multistakeholder governance model” in a “Declaration on the Future of the Internet.” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has proposed drawing up a “Global Digital Compact” by autumn 2023 as part of his “Common Agenda.” And in 2025, the UN will review the progress made with the “Tunis Agenda,” which was adopted in 2005 by the UN World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

There are enough opportunities to defend the “One World—One Internet” philosophy, which is backed by ICANN, ISOC and other leaders of the global Internet community. “These discussions must continue and recognize the interconnectedness of cyber and internet governance issues. Efforts to sustain a multistakeholder internet governance model cannot stop with declarations by states. They must be supported by all stakeholders who benefit from the internet and its associated communications and technologies. Toward that end, the World Economic Forum is convening a Global Dialogue on Digital Cooperation. This dialogue will ensure an impartial platform for strengthening the multistakeholder governance model of the internet and help support a more positive and inclusive digital future,” said Alexander Klimburg, Member of WEF’s Executive Committee and the new Head of the Centre for Cybersecurity of the World Economic Forum.

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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