The United States must balance its need to defend against cyber threats with the important advantages of its current policy that enshrines internet openness. In this argument, Professor Matthew Flynn responds to the Moises Naim’s article Why Democracies are at a Disadvantage in Cyber Wars, which appeared online on the Journal of International Affairs’ website on 15 March 2017.

If the internet becomes a menace to western ideals, then U.S. adversaries will have accomplished a tremendous feat: compelling the creators of the medium to give up on their progeny because they now see it as a monster; and the perception of abandoning American sensibilities is just about here. Many in the United States are beginning to view the embrace of a free exchange of ideas and information–once embodied by the internet–as a critical vulnerability, not a strength. That negative view of "openness" is driving the U.S. Government to consider greater controls of the internet.

Any mandate of oversight clashes with the current U.S. cyber policy of defending and advancing openness, which spans the administrations of President Barack Obama and President Donald J. Trump. This common policy seeks to capitalize on the strategic disadvantage that those seeking to restrict cyberspace face when confronted by the premise of an open internet. The U.S. Department of Defense embraces this mantra. According to its “Cyber Strategy” from April 2015, “[t]he United States is committed to an open, secure, interoperable, and reliable internet” that reflects “core American values–of freedom of expression and privacy, creativity, opportunity, and innovation.” When the Trump administration released an Executive Order on May 11, 2017, seeking to increase protections of the nation’s federal networks and infrastructure from cyberattack, that document repeated a familiar refrain: "…it is the policy of the executive branch to promote an open, interoperable, reliable, and secure internet that fosters efficiency, innovation, communication, and economic prosperity, while respecting privacy and guarding against disruption, fraud, and theft."

In short, the United States enjoys a permanent, asymmetrical, strategic advantage given the ideological dynamic unleashed in cyberspace as values are tested in that domain. Openness possesses a brief history that suggests the United States is winning that ideological struggle in cyberspace. Connectivity has helped foster spontaneous expressions of popular discontent–a hallmark of democracy–since 2000, posing problems to authoritarian regimes. The Color Revolutions (2000-05), the Russian “attacks” in Estonia and Georgia (2007 and 2008, respectively), and the Arab Spring (2010-12), signify “cyber rebellions” that challenged the ability of ruling strongmen to control these kinds of outbreaks. After 2008, Russia spent the next six years under now-President Vladimir Putin coping with the threat of online movements. In 2014 in Crimea, Russia emerged confident that such popular expression was curtailed, and that such movements or unrest could be exported elsewhere, such as to Ukraine and the United States. In addition, China’s ongoing effort to enforce its Great Firewall speaks to the same vulnerability and the same end. Its “great cannon” in particular seeks to increase state control of online information by serving as an attack tool to enforce censorship.

Other nations have followed China’s lead. Vietnam has deployed as many as 10,000 people to staff a cyber warfare unit to counter “peaceful revolution” narratives it believes are designed to spread “Western political ideas” on the internet. Recent developments have allowed this push toward government oversight to gain ground. Indonesia has created a cyber security agency to protect the public from “fake news” by checking online information. Even states with longstanding traditions of defending civil liberties have compromised their standards to thwart what they perceive as the worst of the new technology.  The United Kingdom, in the wake of the June 2017 terrorist attack in London that killed eight people, looks to “regulate cyberspace” to deny the “evil ideology of Islamist extremism” the safe place provided to them by the “big companies that provide internet-based services.” In many ways, these nations are merely catching up to the United States. Authors Shane Harris1 and Fred Kaplin2 have documented efforts by the National Security Agency (NSA) to seize the metadata of U.S. citizens in massive sweeps of communications within U.S. borders to detect potential attacks. The agency insists the content of the messages remained sacrosanct. This parsing of collection left the NSA exposed to recrimination when contractor Edward Snowden released classified information to the public that suggested NSA overreach. More recently, the Trump administration hopes to monitor the social media of immigrants entering the United States.

The United States is struggling to balance its policy of openness against the interests of U.S. businesses and cyber sovereignty. With the end of net neutrality, big business threatens openness via a free hand to manipulate user access by facilitating content that maximizes profit while obstructing that which serves as a competitor. This practice of capitalism suggests that in the United States, commercializing ideas matters more than advocating for human expression now that online content will be prioritized depending on its relative financial gain. Worse, critics within the United States simply ignore the virtues of openness and lament online vulnerabilities, sometimes even pushing for a retreat from open borders in cyberspace. Authoritarian regimes welcome this view because they clamor for the right to control internet content on a state by state basis rather than as a universal, shared space. To keep pace in the cyber war, the United States feels it must do the same. 

Embracing cyber sovereignty will shield those cringing before the impact of cyber rebellions.  Instead, democratic states must press their ideological, strategic advantage in cyberspace. Experts recognize three layers of cyberspace: 1) physical, 2) logical network, and 3) cyber-persona. These layers all interact to define one more layer, a cognitive dimension in the cyber domain. This broad understanding of cyberspace renders conflict there a fundamentally standalone confrontation over the openness of that domain: physical connectedness remains, while logical access is contested. An ideological struggle to preserve that quality of openness ensues and those operating in cyberspace must recognize the primacy of access to information to serve that purpose in cyberspace. Cyber at the strategic level obliterates sovereignty issues tied to the physical domains because a global and public space exists in cyberspace inviting human expression in terms of a moral sovereignty applicable to a global community, not to an authority over citizens of differing states i.e. an Aristotelian good. 

Ultimately, those defending and advancing openness enjoy a tremendous advantage at the strategic level of cyberspace by confronting opponents of democracy at the cognitive layer. In fact, those supporting terrorism online or launching a fake news campaign seek to undermine that very strategic advantage. They want a deluge of information to compel the United States to abandon its most cherished beliefs and traditions in favor of enforcing borders in cyberspace, thus surrendering to a push for cyber sovereignty. Recognizing and accepting openness as policy, including its importance in fostering ideological struggles globally, must compel governments to reconsider increased internet monitoring as a means of dealing with online threats.

Naturally, the United States must concern itself with threats in cyberspace. U.S. adversaries have penetrated Department of Defense networks, infiltrated private businesses, and stolen intellectual capital. Now these adversaries seek to undermine the representative political process. Experts believe that better user hygiene is the foremost way to reduce exposure but warn that cyber security is an ongoing process. Because humans interact in cyberspace, one will never be entirely secure, leading too many in democratic states to believe that vulnerabilities in cyberspace far outweigh the benefits of connectivity. The real task is to reduce online threats without forfeiting the strategic high ground.

Demanding an open internet secures the strategic high ground in cyberspace. Preserving that advantage means democracies are already predetermined to win any cyber war. In this respect, divergent thoughts coming from an abundance of information are a boon, not a bane. There will be challenges given this access but nothing democracies have not faced before and still persevered. The democratic process will always be raucous, but becoming like the enemy by shuttering the internet is a sure way to forfeit the coveted strategic high ground and lose the cyber war, abandoning any sense of ourselves as members of a democratic state. That end would be defeat, plain and simple.

Matthew J. Flynn is Professor of Military History at Marine Corps University, where his interests include cyber warfare, great power status, preemptive war, and piracy. He is the author of numerous publications, including a co-authored study entitled Washington & Napoleon: Leadership in the Age of Revolution and the book Preemptive War in Modern History. Professor Flynn also operates the website, which is dedicated to examining the new conditions shaping global conflict. The views in this article are his own and not those of the Marine Corps or the United States Department of Defense.

1. Shane Harris, @WAR: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), 31, 36.

2. Fred Kaplin, Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War, (New York: Simon & Shuster, 2016), 231, 249.