While Russian hackers attack Ukraine and probe critical infrastructure across the West, United Nations member states have been debating a new cybercrime convention. This may appear, on paper, to be a reasonable response to the Kremlin’s aggressive campaign to dominate cyberspace. But there’s a major problem: as currently written, the convention does little more than underwrite Putin’s digital authoritarianism. It’s no surprise, then, that Beijing and Moscow have been so forthcoming with their support.
Putin has an uneasy relationship with the web. On the one hand, it is an arena in which Russia can challenge the West on equal footing, despite the latter’s conventional military and economic superiority. On the other, he fears the internet’s power to facilitate domestic unrest, spearheaded – in Moscow’s eyes – by Western intelligence agencies hellbent on destroying his country.
Over his more than two decades in power, Putin has asserted greater and greater control over Russia’s domestic information space. The state has seized control of mainstream media outlets and social media platforms while persecuting independent journalists. Moscow has also deployed increasingly sophisticated tools to monitor and filter internet traffic, aiming eventually to unhook the Russian internet from global networks.
Given Russia’s disregard for international law, as demonstrated by its brutal invasion of Ukraine, Moscow’s involvement in regulating cyber norms in the UN may seem strange. But Putin is a cynic and he is using the UN strategically. The Kremlin, in partnership with Beijing and other authoritarian regimes, aims to shape international norms to further its revisionist objectives and legitimise a crack-down on free expression.
Russia’s campaign to define international cyberspace norms has existed for decades. At first, success proved elusive. In 1998, Moscow submitted a set of “principles of international information security” to the UN which received little support. Three years later, Western democracies established the Budapest convention on cybercrime – an agreement that Russia refused to sign, arguing that it was “too intrusive.”
But Moscow’s position has since strengthened. In 2019, Russia and the United States put forward two competing resolutions. Russia won out, in part because Washington and its allies failed to properly lobby on behalf of their draft. Since then, the Russian-backed resolution allowed Moscow to leverage the Open-Ended Working Group to advance tyrant-friendly online norms, while joining forces with other nations who favour a state-controlled internet.
Subsequently, the UN General Assembly decided to hold negotiations on an international cybercrime convention under a separate “Ad Hoc Committee.” Last week marked the beginning of its sixth negotiating session.
Western allies have long pushed for the convention to focus narrowly on cybercrime, while ensuring that human rights obligations are respected. The authoritarian block, for their part, have utilised language that justifies surveillance and repression in the name of preserving digital “sovereignty” and countering “extremism” or “harmful information”. The West may have improved the draft, but it still contains troubling provisions – and serve to validate totalitarianism under the umbrella of UN legitimacy.
Even a perfectly crafted convention won’t stop authoritarian regimes from attacking the West or repressing their people. But that doesn’t mean that we should cede cyberspace to the likes of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. Western nations must launch a coordinated effort to reject tyrannical manipulation, ensure that the dream of a free and open internet remains accessible to all.