When Corporate Interests and International Cyber Agreements Collide
The Paris Call for Trust and Stability in Cyberspace is an initiative launched by French President Emmanuel Macron during the 2018 UNESCO’s Internet Governance Forum. It’s an attempt by the world’s governments to come together and create a set of international norms and standards for a reliable, trustworthy, safe, and secure Internet. It’s not an international treaty, but it does impose obligations on the signatories. It’s a major milestone for global Internet security and safety.
Corporate interests are all over this initiative, sponsoring and managing different parts of the process. As part of the Call, the French company Cigref and the Russian company Kaspersky chaired a working group on cybersecurity processes, along with French research center GEODE. Another working group on international norms was chaired by US company Microsoft and Finnish company F-Secure, along with a University of Florence research center. A third working group’s participant list includes more corporations than any other group.
As a result, this process has become very different than previous international negotiations. Instead of governments coming together to create standards, it is being driven by the very corporations that the new international regulatory climate is supposed to govern. This is wrong.
The companies making the tools and equipment being regulated shouldn’t be the ones negotiating the international regulatory climate, and their executives shouldn’t be named to key negotiation roles without appointment and confirmation. It’s an abdication of responsibility by the U.S. government for something that is too important to be treated this cavalierly.
On the one hand, this is no surprise. The notions of trust and stability in cyberspace are about much more than international safety and security. They’re about market share and corporate profits. And corporations have long led policymakers in the fast-moving and highly technological battleground that is cyberspace.
The international Internet has always relied on what is known as a multistakeholder model, where those who show up and do the work can be more influential than those in charge of governments. The Internet Engineering Task Force, the group that agrees on the technical protocols that make the Internet work, is largely run by volunteer individuals. This worked best during the Internet’s era of benign neglect, where no one but the technologists cared. Today, it’s different. Corporate and government interests dominate, even if the individuals involved use the polite fiction of their own names and personal identities.
However, we are a far cry from decades past, where the Internet was something that governments didn’t understand and largely ignored. Today, the Internet is an essential infrastructure that underpins much of society, and its governance structure is something that nations care about deeply. Having for-profit tech companies run the Paris Call process on regulating tech is analogous to putting the defense contractors Northrop Grumman or Boeing in charge of the 1970s SALT nuclear agreements between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
This also isn’t the first time that U.S. corporations have led what should be an international relations process regarding the Internet. Since he first gave a speech on the topic in 2017, Microsoft President Brad Smith has become almost synonymous with the term “Digital Geneva Convention.” It’s not just that corporations in the U.S. and elsewhere are taking a lead on international diplomacy, they’re framing the debate down to the words and the concepts.
Why is this happening? Different countries have their own problems, but we can point to three that currently plague the U.S.
First and foremost, “cyber” still isn’t taken seriously by much of the government, specifically the State Department. It’s not real to the older military veterans, or to the even older politicians who confuse Facebook with TikTok and use the same password for everything. It’s not even a topic area for negotiations for the U.S. Trade Representative. Nuclear disarmament is “real geopolitics,” while the Internet is still, even now, seen as vaguely magical, and something that can be “fixed” by having the nerds yank plugs out of a wall.
Second, the State Department was gutted during the Trump years. It lost many of the up-and-coming public servants who understood the way the world was changing. The work of previous diplomats to increase the visibility of the State Department’s cyber efforts were abandoned. There are few left on staff to do this work, and even fewer to decide if they’re any good. It’s hard to hire senior information security professionals in the best of circumstances; it’s why charlatans so easily flourish in the cybersecurity field. The built-up skillset of the people who poured their effort and time into this work during the Obama years is gone.
Third, there’s a power struggle at the heart of the U.S. government involving cyber issues, between the White House, the Department of Homeland Security (represented by CISA), and the military (represented by U.S. Cyber Command). Trying to create another cyber center of power within the State Department threatens those existing powers. It’s easier to leave it in the hands of private industry, which does not affect those government organizations’ budgets or turf.
We don’t want to go back to the era when only governments set technological standards. The governance model from the days of the telephone is another lesson in how not to do things. The International Telecommunications Union is an agency run out of the United Nations. It is moribund and ponderous precisely because it is run by national governments, with civil society and corporations largely alienated from the decision-making processes.
Today, the Internet is fundamental to global society. It’s part of everything. It affects national security and will be a theater in any future war. How individuals, corporations, and governments act in cyberspace is critical to our future. The Internet is critical infrastructure. It provides and controls access to healthcare, space, the military, water, energy, education, and nuclear weaponry. How it is regulated isn’t just something that will affect the future. It is the future.
Since the Paris Call was finalized in 2018, it has been signed by 81 countries—including the U.S. in 2021—36 local governments and public authorities, 706 companies and private organizations, and 390 civil society groups. The Paris Call isn’t the first international agreement that puts companies on an equal signatory footing as governments. The Global Internet Forum to Combat Terrorism and the Christchurch Call to eliminate extremist content online do the same thing. But the Paris Call is different. It’s bigger. It’s more important. It’s something that should be the purview of governments and not a vehicle for corporate power and profit.
When something as important as the Paris Call comes along again, perhaps in UN negotiations for a cybercrime treaty, we call for actual State Department officials with technical expertise to be sitting at the table with the interests of the entire U.S. in their pocket…not people with equity shares to protect.