Peace Forum Paris: The rise of digital conflict and the need for digital peace

22.11.2018| Christian Kreutz
Digital peace projects at the Peace Forum in Paris
Paris Peace Forum

The Internet has become in recent years a major arena of conflict. National and international conflicts are increasingly fought online through cyber propaganda, cyber attacks and even cyberwar. Hence, digital peace is a major topic and involves civil society, international organizations, companies and states.

I am fascinated and worried about the topic of cyber security and digital peace. That's why I was delighted to follow an invitation by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit for the Paris Peace Forum (#parisPeaceForum) held from the 11th to the 13th of November 2018 by the French government. This post is a summary of my observations during the conference on the topic of digital peace and cyber conflict.

The Peace Forum was opened by the French president Macron through the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace. It is an initiative to react to the rise of cyber conflict and the lack of international agreement to deal with that challenge. Basically it is an attempt to stand for a free, open and secure Internet. It is a call signed by many countries, companies and organizations.

Digital peace and cyber security

In the session "Crafting Peace in Cyberspace”, the Paris call was discussed with the French Minister of Foreign Affairs. The Paris call highlights the challenge that international law can be applied only partially in cyberspace. I find the topic particularly fascinating for one reason: Cyber war does not follow the old logic of nuclear deterrence, a cornerstone of the balance of power in international relations. The nuclear arms race had been stopped at one point as opponents reached a certain threshold of deterrence. In cyber war that logic does not work for two reasons:

  1. Hardly any cyber attack can be attributed to the source let alone is at all discovered and
  2. a cyber attack (e.g. malware) can be potentially initiated from a garage by a teenager.

How can one deter an enemy that is not known? How can one defend from cyber attacks that are so easy to implement? And never in history before have companies such as Google and Facebook played such a big role in these emerging conflicts. It says a lot that it was Microsoft that recently proposed to develop a Digital Geneva Convention. Microsoft has also lunched together with the ICT for peace foundation the digital peace petition that has been signed already by more than 100 thousand people. Little is coming from states and government, and the Paris call could be also called a wake up call. Melissa Hathaway describes the challenge in her paper "This state silence is contributing to a new de facto norm — “anything goes” — and this is dangerous because it increases the risks to international peace, security and stability."

The shifting role of law in cyberspace

The next session I joined was titled "Laws online: The Geography of Cyberspace" with Bertrand de la Chapelle from the Internet & Jurisdiction Policy Network and Mark Scott from Politico. I wrote recently about digital rights and the challenges to apply law in digital space. Bertrand de la Chapelle explained the challenges of jurisdiction in Cyberspace when a simple Internet interaction with a cloud service goes through many countries. For Chapelle the key challenge is extraterritoriality, "the state of being exempted from the jurisdiction of local law". What happens when your photos are stored in the USA, but you pay the service in France? Or it can go the other way: In Canada the Supreme Court has acknowledge that the right to be forgotten is global.

Chapelle also highlighted the active role of Internet companies: "It's the company, and not the governments, that fight revenge porn". He explained by the example of parody how difficult it is to apply law online and how certain parody can be seen very different from country to country. In his eyes, two important shifts mark the Internet's right space: (1) how the USA created the Internet with a free speech approach in mind and (2) the data protection movement through the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe. And the third shift on the horizon is a "legal arms race". States were rather hesitant to develop distinct laws for the digital space, or attempted to apply existing law on Cyberspace with mixed success. Recently across the world, states have formulated new laws (e.g. data localization laws) in their attempt for "Digital Sovereignty". But there is no way around big Internet companies nowadays - new sovereigns of cyberspace as Rebecca MacKinnon called them.

Digital human rights and the sovereigns of cyberspace

That's why I joined the session "Engaging the Digital Industry for Human Rights" with three great panelist: Rebecca MacKinnon from the Ranking Digital Rights initiative, Julie Owono from Internet Sans Frontière and Gbenga Sesan from the Paradigm Initiative. Rebecca MacKinnon was presenting the latest results from the Ranking Digital rights index 2018 that looks at large Internet companies and their efforts on data protection and free speech. The index is an important step in shedding light on the practices of such companies and how they act on personal data and content regulation. Julie Owono and Gbenga Sesan talked about how large mobile companies such as Orange and Vodafone have different practices in the North than the South. They also gave examples of how sophisticated communication shutdowns are already implemented, when during a soccer match in Nigeria all mobile phones around the stadium have no connection. But they also described how such companies try to sue the government for being forced into such shutdowns.

A human rights activist from Tanzania on the other side praised how social media helps their work like no other communication channel before. I remember when we discussed social networks at conferences more than 10 years ago, and it was a complete nerd niche topic. So much has changed since then.

The two faces of Internet giants