The cyber domain is the ideal platform for nations, organizations, and even individuals struggling for prominence, dominance, and power. It is omnipresent—almost borderless—but also vague and elusive. From the early years of the internet in the late twentieth century to current social media platforms, beyond enabling communication, the internet has been used to disseminate information and knowledge globally. Although initially a Western project, the internet saw widespread adoption by governments and individuals benefiting from globalization via network and information access. Its core structure was open and largely still is. However, due to escalations in cyber-attacks and cyber influence campaigns, this might soon change for the worse.
In an attempt to protect themselves from malicious or unwanted information and to control their sovereignty, nations are increasingly restricting their cyber borders. Foreign interventions and abuse of the internet’s openness via mis- and/or disinformation campaigns, cyber proxy warfare, and digital diplomacy are all factors.
On the one hand, the United States has often attempted to keep its internet as open as possible during episodes of Russian, Chinese, Iranian and other cyber-attacks and mis- and disinformation campaigns at the expense of public order and national security. For instance, the world watched as the United States Capitol was overrun by conspiracy theorists and white supremacists supported by foreign mis- and disinformation.
Authoritarian regimes such as Russia, with laws regarding “sovereign internet” and its RuNet project, or China, with its Great Firewall, benefit from the current lack of global cyber regulations and laws. This dearth of rules allows them to restrict their cyber borders but exercise their sharp power onto Western entities, creating a disadvantage for democratic and liberal societies with open internets.
Democratic and liberal governments are not homogenous with respect to their internet approach. Some regulate internet content, restrict services, even shut down their internets during times of chaos and disorder. However, less democratic nations do so constantly. For instance, Iran has restricted internet access while its citizens held riots opposing the regime. In contrast, while the United States Capitol was under siege on January 6th, 2021, the U.S. government did not opt for a similar approach. This highlights the true difference of such regimes. Less democratic and less liberal actors create ‘cyber borders’ for controlling not only their affairs but also the minds and behaviors of their citizens. Western democracies are at a clear disadvantage.
How free is our global internet right now? According to Freedom House’s index of internet freedom, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, South Africa, Australia, and Japan are among those with free internets. Nations such as Mexico, Brazil, Libya, Morocco, and India and have partial internet freedom. Ukraine, Morocco, and South Korea too have partial internet freedom but are constantly reaching for more. Russia, China, Egypt, Iran, and Pakistan, among others, have low scores and their cyber domains are not free. In nations such as North Korea, the internet is not an internet at all but rather a sort of national intranet which allows internal communication but is disconnected from the external grid.
Nations with free internets are more susceptible to cyber interventions by cyber-attacks or influence campaigns. The United States, the United Kingdom, most European countries, Israel, and many others are constantly attacked and flooded with bots, trolls and mis- and disinformation–so-called ‘fake news’. These disrupt public opinion and make the execution and application of democracy and liberalism more difficult.
It must be mentioned that many social media companies and democratic nations do not always see eye to eye on issues of information freedom and reach, putting restrictions on one another in the process. Some recent examples are the European DSA (Digital Services Act) and DMA (Digital Markets Act) which are broadly aimed at making companies more responsible for the content or products on their platforms. There is still the now years’ old European GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), aimed at protecting the privacy and data of European citizens.
Understanding the current trends of cyber regulation and cyber sovereignty, what concepts from international relations can be used to make our internet safer while keeping it free and open? With no binding international laws applicable to cyberspace, such as in the case of maritime law, nations have three main options.
First, some nations will continue restricting their cyberspaces and internets with regulations and laws that apply to the four layers of cyberspace; the physical infrastructure, logical design, information, and users. This primarily refers to Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and others. Some have robust cyber borders while some have looser.
Second, a nation such as the United States or Israel can preserve the freedom and openness of their internets as well as cooperate with other nations that are being attacked by the aforementioned ‘bad’ actors. That is not to say that regulations are not made by those nations, but they strive to be as open as possible.
The third option is cyber blocs. That is, blocs of nations such as the European Union that strive to regulate their common internet to protect themselves and their citizens while maintaining regulation at a higher level.
Common international relations theory draws attention to the creation of treaties and agreements, crucial aspects of diplomatic affairs. Some are ‘hard power’ treaties, such as NATO, aimed at security. Some are ‘softer’, such as the European Union, aimed at economic and cultural cooperation. Whichever path, it is likely that the world is shifting towards another global division of the internet. Authoritarian regimes will have their own internet blocs, as will liberal democracies.
One cooperation of note in the cyber realm is now taking shape via the Abraham Accords. Early in 2023 it was announced that the United States, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates, alongside Bahrain and Morocco will expand their cyber collaboration. While the goal of this collaboration is cybersecurity rather than freedom of information, the creation of such a cyber bloc opposing Iranian, Russian, and Chinese cyber efforts is crucial to the general effort of keeping the internet safe, secure, and open. While members of this cyber bloc have disparate interests, their collaboration in such fields has the potential to bridge gaps and bring member-states closer. That is, collaboration might expand to other areas.
In theory, cyber blocs as described above may be developed throughout the entire structure of the internet or through several layers. They may consist of collaboration and the development of the infrastructure, logical design, information, or users, which, taken together, can be considered as a complete cyber bloc. Alternatively, they may consist of partial collaboration on one of the four layers of cyberspace.
Only time will tell towards which direction our internets are surfing. Whether the benefits of cyber blocs are for cybersecurity, cyber warfare, freedom of information and communication, or all these taken together, it is not yet clear. Evident though is that in the twenty-first century, liberal governance considers open internet access a human right. Netizens – citizens of the net – deserve a secure, safe, and open internet, whether they are from the United States, Morocco, Israel, or Russia.
Dr. Lev Topor is an ISGAP visiting scholar at the Woolf Institute, University of Cambridge, a senior research fellow at the Center for Cyber Law and Policy, University of Haifa and a former visiting scholar at the International Institute for Holocaust Research, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem. Dr. Topor is an expert in anonymous communications, extremism, antisemitism, and the cyber domain. Dr. Topor is the author of two groundbreaking books: Phishing for Nazis: Conspiracies, Anonymous Communications and White Supremacy Networks on the Dark Web (Routledge, 2023) and the co-author (w/ J.Fox) of Why Do People Discriminate Against Jews? (Oxford University Press, 2021). Topor is also the author of over a dozen peer reviewed academic articles.