Russia’s war in Ukraine has pushed the US into a new era in defense of both cybersecurity and the open internet.
In its infancy, the commercial web was thought to be a much-needed competitor against the incumbent players in the telecommunications market—or rather it could be, but only if it could steer clear of strangling regulations. So the US created a governance system with minimal state control, enshrining the right of free access within the context of a global, secure and resilient internet.
Over the decades that followed, repressive rulers alarmed by the role of a free, open internet in the Arab Spring in North Africa and the Middle East and in the Orange Revolution in Ukraine turned the technology to their advantage. The US and the EU faced an asymmetric challenge. Even as violent campaigns targeted religious and ethnic minorities, cyberattacks crippled civic institutions and information operations undermined free elections, democracies confronted a dilemma. Their societies were increasingly operating online, and responding too aggressively to those attacks risked further compromising not only their own security, but also the openness of the global network.
Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine may prove to be the end of the US’s relatively passive approach. In response to Russia’s recent aggression, propaganda efforts, censorship and cyberattacks, the US has worked with democratic allies to leverage their digital advantages to great impact. The group effort has also proved that a robust cyber defense doesn’t have to come at the expense of online human rights.
The Biden administration has combined sanctions with savvy deployment of intelligence and carefully applied export controls to effectively cut off Russia from the internet economy without cutting off its citizens’ access.
Prior to this, US efforts too often failed to stem Russian and Chinese threats. Indictments of individual hackers, cyber counterattacks, even a historic 2015 treaty with China—none of it made a lasting difference, especially when US-Chinese relations degraded and ransomware attacks from Russia surged under President Donald Trump.
The US and Europe did support efforts to counter online repression, such as the Freedom Online Coalition and the US Open Technology Fund. In 2019 the US successfully banned imports from telecommunications company Huawei—known for its connections to the Chinese state and allowing unauthorized third-party access to its networks, as well as unsanctioned data transfers. The US also curtailed Huawei’s ability to sell worldwide by denying it access to US technology. But similar actions against TikTok and WeChat were poorly conceived and eventually stalled, while repressive regimes—especially China—continued to benefit from imports of other critical technologies to build up their economic and military might.
At the same time, China and Russia were making inroads at the multinational level, most notably by advancing a global cybercrime treaty at the UN so vaguely worded that it could open the door to all manner of repressive behaviors, from political prosecutions to state sponsored surveillance. Human Rights Watch warns that the treaty, which is still under negotiation, “risks legitimizing abusive practices and could be used as an excuse to silence government critics and undermine privacy in many countries.”
It took the invasion of Ukraine to galvanize the US, and not a moment too soon. The Biden administration has not only leveraged declassified intelligence to engage in an information war but has also assumed an active posture, working with allies to protect against Russian cyberattacks and launching offensives of its own. It has used its potent sanction and export control authority to cut off Russia’s entire military and much of its economy from sensitive US technology exports.
In a strong signal that it is not abandoning its support for an open internet, the US issued a humanitarian exemption to its tech export controls for noncommercial products and services exports such as software dedicated to online messaging, videoconferencing and web browsing, preserving Russian citizens’ ability to connect to the internet. It also notably did not endorse a petition from Ukraine to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers that would have effectively delisted Russia from the internet. ICANN ultimately denied the petition.
In the context of this skillful balancing act, the Declaration for the Future of the Internet, a 60-country agreement championed by the White House and signed in April, coupled with the establishment of a new cyber bureau at the US State Department, could herald an era of more muscular defense of democratic values online. Of course, what happens next will determine the meaningfulness of these actions.
Any effective campaign to protect democratic values at home and abroad will have to start with adding new signatories to the declaration or at least gathering new adherents to its approach, including countries such as India, Brazil and others that have been the target of China’s soft-power Belt and Road Initiative.
Leveraging the US’s technological edge to kneecap authoritarian military aims will require a more structured effort than the country has so far mustered. That will involve building on the export controls fashioned for Huawei and then used against Russia, working with allies to ensure resilient supply chains and cooperating in international standard-setting efforts, in addition to applying skillful diplomacy at the UN and in other international forums.
Early signs are hopeful. The second US-EU Trade and Technology Council meeting, held in France in mid-May, produced a strong joint statement emphasizing the role governments have in “protecting the digital information space in a crisis.” In the immediate term, that means establishing a collaborative framework to push back against Russia’s propaganda efforts, one the TTC can also apply to future conflicts. The TTC is also committed to reducing digital interdependence with authoritarians via tactics including export controls, supply chain protections and common technology standards.
The allies will face a major test in September when candidates from the US and Russia face off for leadership of the UN’s International Telecommunication Union, the organization that sets the rules for the underlying networks on which the internet runs. China and Russia want the ITU to grant more latitude for national governments to control the flow of information over their own networks; in a joint statement last June, the two authoritarian powers reiterated their commitments to “preserving the sovereign right of States to regulate the national segment of the Internet.” That the Russian candidate previously worked for Huawei only underscores the importance of the choice.
At the dawn of a new age of innovation, as 5G, Web3 and artificial intelligence transform the internet, authoritarians will make every effort to take advantage of these changes to increase their power and further undermine democracies. It will be up to the US and its allies to create a road map that ensures the internet remains open to all.
This piece was originally published by The Information on July 13, 2022, under the headline “The U.S. Is Writing a New Digital Doctrine.”