Issue BriefsPublished on Aug 23, 2023 PDF Download
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The UN and Cyberspace Governance

Even though governments have attempted to address issue related to cyber governance by creating national-level mechanisms, the very transnational nature of cyberspace has forced the international community to debate and form norms or rules that should promote good behaviour in cyberspace.

Cyberspace and its various networks including the Internet have become central to several economies, businesses and militaries. According to Internet World Stats , there are nearly 2.5 billion people using the Internet across the globe today. While this unprecedented connectivity has provided numerous opportunities for individuals, businesses and governments to benefit from, elements threatening its stability are also increasing. Threats such as Distributed Denial of Service Attacks (DDoS) and malware, among others, are attempting to erode the trust that billions have put in these networks. While criminals and groups with malicious intent are spearheading this attempt, state or state-sponsored actions to disrupt these networks are also being identified as a potential danger. At the same time certain nations have felt that the free flow of information, considered to be the primary reason for the Internet’s success, could disturb societal peace and harmony. Even though governments have attempted to address these issues by creating national-level mechanisms, the very transnational nature of cyberspace has forced the international community to debate and form norms or rules that should promote good behaviour in cyberspace. As in the real world, there are varying and sometimes opposing views held by nations when it comes to governing cyberspace.

The United Nations (UN) has been working for over a decade to eliminate these differences and create a mechanism to ensure the security and stability of cyberspace. The UN First Committee on Disarmament and International Security which deals with disarmament, global challenges and threats to peace has been discussing the issue of information security since 1998, when the Russian Federation introduced a draft resolution on “Developments in the field of information and telecommunications in the context of international security” in the General Assembly (GA). Since then, member nations have been submitting reports about their thoughts on information security to the UN Secretary General. The initial period was dull without much movement within the UN towards dealing with issues in cyberspace. However, mounting reports of disruptions and the increasing potential of cyber attacks disturbing the peace in the real world led countries to examine these challenges more seriously within the UN. More substantial work began at the UN when it constituted a Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) in 2004 to “examine the existing and potential threats from the cyber-sphere and possible cooperative measures to address them”. Since then there have been three GGEs set up by the UN, gaining significant ground.

As witnessed during many other efforts by the UN to gain international consensus, the discussion on information security too has suffered due to geopolitical differences between major powers. Largely, the international community is divided into two groups–the West led by the US on one side and Russia and China on the other side. The West has supported the free flowing nature and functioning of the Internet whereas Russia and China are seeking a role for governments in controlling the information flow on the Internet–multistakeholderism versus multilateralism. Secondly, there is a divide when it comes to the primary challenges that the UN discussions are trying to address. While the US and the West seek to contain economic espionage and criminal activity in cyberspace, Moscow and Beijing are looking at broader rules that would restrict a State’s ability to use cyberspace for offensive purposes. Moreover, Russia and China are seeking to formalise an international treaty to govern cyberspace– opposed by the US and other Western countries.

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