Cyberspace and the Rise of the BRICS
Friday, October 11th, 2013
BRICS leaders. From left: Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, India’s Pranab Mukherjee, Russia’s Vladimir Putin,
China’s Xi Jinping, South Africa’s Jacob Zuma. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Abstract: Over the last decade, rising powers emerged as powerful contestants of U.S. leadership in cyberspace. However, while their joint rise has led to growing institutionalized cooperation among them, their contestation of the U.S.’s role in the cyber arena has varied greatly, hinging heavily on each state’s political system.
The future of the Internet is at a critical juncture. Leaked information on the U.S. National Security Agency’s (NSA) surveillance programs has not only made headlines around the world, but it has also impacted global politics. Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff most recently took the U.S. government to task at a UN summit this September, and China’s state-backed media called it the “biggest villain in our age.”  
The year 2013 is a pivotal moment for the Internet as cyberspace becomes an increasingly contested area. The economic and political stakes involved have transformed cyberspace from an issue of low to high-level politics, and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) countries will play a critical role in determining its outcome.
While we wait for the future to unfold, the recent developments present an opportune moment to shed some light on the BRICS’ past behavior with respect to cyber policy. Few dispute that the U.S. has been the global leader in both enforcing cyber policy and fostering the evolution of the Internet. As to cyber policy, the world’s rising powers—driven by their own growing capabilities and the increasing stakes at hand—have begun to question that leadership. This contestation has led analysts to proclaim the start of “cyber wars,” “battle over the soul of the Internet,” and most recently that “the net is finished as a global network.”  In view of this, it becomes apparent that there are significant differences among the BRICS’ cyber policies.
A better understanding of these nuances will help evaluate how the recent events will structure future discussions.
Conditions for contesting the status quo in cyberspace
Emerging details on the NSA’s wide-reaching surveillance programs not only shed light on the role private companies play in the cyber landscape, but also on the role of the state in shaping the Internet. The existing Internet governance regime has been framed as a “multi-stakeholder” model, since it consists of governments, private companies, and non-governmental organizations without an inherent hierarchy among the three.
The U.S. government’s leadership role in cyberspace, however, presents an anomaly to the posited multi-stakeholder model. And as such, the U.S. position is now a focus of contestation.
Two key dimensions of this contestation are Internet governance and cyber-security. When it comes to Internet governance, contestation strategies not only focus on existing rules, but also—to borrow the chessboard analogy popularized by Joseph Nye—on the game itself. For land, sea, air, and space, the design of each chessboard is already determined and contestation is limited to changing the rules of the game. In cyberspace, however, the gameboard itself can be changed by altering the physical infrastructure, the protocol, or the content layers to affect the actors and their actions.
With respect to cyber-security, the Internet has become an additional battle space, and world military leaders have taken note. U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense, William J. Lynn III, for example, declared cyberspace a new domain of warfare in 2010. Since then, it has become increasingly evident that cyberspace is a medium through which military and non-military, state and non-state groups can target and carry out attacks on physical infrastructures.
The contestation over cyber-security and modern surveillance systems also raises the age-old question of how to balance freedom and security, but in the digital context.
Why BRICS’ Cyber Strategies Differ
All five of the BRICS member states have demonstrated high-level policy interest in cyberspace, as informed by the recent developments highlighted. Their joint March 2013 Durban Declaration highlights the “critical positive role the Internet plays” and the BRICS’ belief that “it’s important to contribute to and participate in a peaceful, secure, and open cyberspace.”
At the same time, there is a noticeable difference in prioritization among them. The divergence is most evident in the lack of a joint BRICS proposal on either a code of conduct on cyber-security or on a new Internet governance body. In spite of the increased institutionalization of the BRICS group as a coalition and various proposals contesting the U.S.’s role regarding the Internet, the group is splintered.
In September 2011, Russia and China mobilized the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to introduce the “International Code of Conduct for Information Security,” understood as a deliberate attempt to counterbalance U.S. dominance and a strong reaffirmation of state sovereignty over information. 
Meanwhile, India, Brazil, and South Africa (IBSA) chose to go a different route. At the first summit of the trilateral IBSA Dialogue Forum in 2006, their governments identified the “information society” as a priority of collaboration. Such deliberations mark these three nations as “swing states” in the international debate on Internet governance: They are characterized by pro-activeness, but are careful not to align with either U.S. or Sino-Russian initiatives.
This variation is predominantly the result of diverging political regimes. At the most basic level, Freedom House’s index “Freedom in the World” reveals significant differences between the political systems of the five countries, labeling China and Russia—in contrast to Brazil, India, and South Africa—as “not free” and not “electoral democracies.”
In the Brasilia Declaration, the IBSA Dialogue Forum’s 2003 founding document, the three governments had made democratic governance a central driver of their shared interests, describing themselves as “vibrant democracies” that seek to intensify their cooperation on information and communication technologies to narrow the digital divide.
In contrast, human rights issues tend to be sidelined in BRICS meetings as attempts to include such issues previously discussed at IBSA summits are regularly blocked by China and Russia.
The differences between political systems are also reflected in the diverging use of key related concepts such as “information security” and “cyber-security.” Taking the Sino-Russian “information security” definition to mean the absence of all kinds of threats to a country’s stability caused by the dissemination of information, Russia and China’s pursuit of the issue then arguably leaves ample room for content control from the state. This stands in direct contrast to the working U.S. definition of “cyber-security,” which is codified in diplomatic negotiations to explicitly exclude content control. The Sino-Russian imperative also contradicts IBSA’s self-proclaimed identification and expected appropriate behavior as an alliance of “vibrant democracies.”
The divide between democratic and non-democratic states manifests in cyber policy approach in several ways. The promotion of information security, for instance, has been one of Russia’s foreign policy priorities for the past 15 years. The former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Igor Ivanov, submitted a letter to then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on 23 September 1998, calling for a draft resolution on information security. The draft has been part of the UN General Assembly’s deliberations ever since.
China also became more involved in this debate after Russia placed the topic on the agenda at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In 2011, China joined Russia, together with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, to submit the proposal for an international code of conduct. This fits into China’s recent broader strategy of adapting an increasingly pro-active stance in institutions related to Internet policy, such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.
Yet, the story is more complex. In democratic societies, the increasing attention paid to cyberspace and its impact on citizens has mobilized civil society organizations that have the ability to pressure their governments regarding official conduct in cyber foreign policy. Several events in India between 2011 and 2012 clearly demonstrate the influence of civil society organizations.
Internet governance first attracted public attention when Delhi submitted its proposal for the establishment of a UN Committee on Internet Related Policy (CIRP) at the 66th General Assembly in October 2011, according to journalist Sandeep Bamzai. This triggered an opposition movement, including Indian private sector and civil society institutions that argued the government had taken a unilateral action without consulting other stakeholders prior to the initiative. This pressure eventually produced results. By October 13, India officially distanced itself from stark (inter-)governmental control and a “balkanization” of the Internet, calling for stronger consultations of all stakeholders involved, The Hindu reported.
In Brazil, the debate over an Internet bill of rights—the Marco Civil da Internet—in 2012 demonstrated a similarly vibrant civil society cyber culture in Brazil.
Moreover, the evolving global balance of power—characterized by a prevalent but increasingly challenged American dominance—has not only allowed emerging powers to engage with the United States in cooperative partnerships, but has also seen them balance and hedge against other rising poles in the international cyber system.
India and the U.S. have been cooperating on cyber-related issues for over a decade. In 2001 the U.S.-India Cyber Security Forum was established, following a counterterrorism dialogue between the two countries’ then leaders, President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The bilateral forum, designed to safeguard shared critical infrastructures, also increased direct lines of communication between the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team. Ten years later in 2011, India and the U.S. signed a memorandum of understanding on cyber-security.
Similarly, in 2010, in addition to signing an agreement with Russia on cooperation in the field of international information and communication security, Brazil signed a “Defense Cooperation Agreement” with the United States, and their joint military exercises reportedly include cyber-security. 
South African leaders have also pivoted toward closing the digital divide on Internet participation throughout the world. When former Deputy President Prime Minister Mbeki spoke at the G7 Ministerial Conference on the Global Information Society in 1995, he said, “Given these disparities, it is clear that bringing the developing world on to the information superhighway constitutes a colossal challenge.”
Swing States and the Future Cyber Order
Our analysis suggests that compared to a decade ago, IBSA member states are increasingly in a position to challenge U.S. Internet hegemony as they enter military cyber-security cooperation agreements with the United States. The emerging multi-polar cyber landscape is further illustrated in the IBSA countries’ hedging and balancing strategies as they respond to external and internal pressures.
Between cyber-security understandings with the U.S. and the broad Sino-Russian campaign for an international code of conduct on information security, these “swing states” are also facing powerful domestic movements pushing for an open and free Internet that can only exist in a democratic society.
What remains unclear is how recent events will affect these trends. Will IBSA now swing more in the direction of Russia and China or will the Sino-Russian imperatives on information security not affect their relationships with the U.S. in the long-term? The outcome of the struggle over Internet governance and cyber-security between BRICS member states will to a large extent determine the future of cyberspace, and with it, shape a fundamental element of the future world order.
Hannes Ebert is a research fellow at the GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies in Hamburg, and conducts research on rising powers and peace and security in South Asia. He is currently a visiting doctoral fellow at Oxford University’s Department of Politics and International Relations.
Tim Maurer focuses on international affairs and tech policy at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute in Washington, DC, conducting research on Internet governance, human rights policy, and cyber-security. He is a non-resident adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and at the Global Public Policy Institute.
This essay is based on the authors’ article “Contested Cyberspace and Rising Powers” published by Third World Quarterly in Vol. 34, No. 6, 2013 available here.
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