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Private-public partnership for cyber security 

On November 11, 2018, as 70 world leaders gathered in Paris to commemorate the countless lives lost in World War I, French President Emmanuel Macron inaugurated the Paris Peace Forum with a fiery speech denouncing nationalism and urging global leaders to pursue peace and stability through multilateral initiatives.

In many ways, it echoed US President Woodrow Wilson’s monumental speech delivered at the US Senate a century ago in which he outlined 14 points on the principles for peace post World War I. As history unkindly reminds us through the catastrophic realities of World War II, Wilson’s principles went on to be sacrificed at the altar of national self-interest and inadequate multilateral enforcement.

President Macron’s first initiative for global peace — the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyber Space was unveiled on November 12 — at the UNESCO Internet Governance Forum — also taking place in Paris. The call was endorsed by over 50 states, 200 private sector entities, including Indian business guilds such as FICCI and the Mobile Association of India and over 100 organisations from civil society and academia from all over the globe. The text essentially comprises a set of high-level principles that seeks to prevent the weaponisation of cyberspace and promote existing institutional mechanisms to “limit hacking and destabilising activities” in cyberspace.

Need for private participation

Given the increasing exploitation of the internet for reaping offensive dividends by state and non-state actors alike and the prevailing roadblocks in the multilateral cyber norms formulation process, Macron’s efforts are perhaps of Wilsonian proportions.

A key difference, however, was that Macron’s efforts were devised hand-in-glove with Microsoft — one of the most powerful and influential private sector actors of our time. Microsoft’s involvement is unsurprising given that private entities have become a critical component of the global cybersecurity landscape and governments need to start thinking about how to optimise their participation in this process.

Indeed, one of the defining features of cyberspace is its incompatibility with state-centric ‘command and control’ formulae that lead to the ordering of other global security regimes — such as nuclear non-proliferation. The decentralised nature of cyberspace means that private sector actors play a vital role in implementing the rules designed to secure cyberspace.

Simultaneously, private actors such as Microsoft have recognised the utility of clearly defined ‘rules of the road’ which ensure certainty and stability in cyberspace and ensure its trustworthiness among global customers.

Normative deadlock

There have been multiple gambits to develop universal norms of responsible state behaviour to foster cyber stability. The United Nations-Group of Governmental Experts (UN-GGE) has been constituted five times now and will meet again in January 2019.

While the third and fourth GGEs in 2013 and 2015 respectively made some progress towards agreeing on some baseline principles, the fifth GGE broke down due to opposition from states including Russia, China and Cuba on the application of specific principles of international law to cyberspace.

This was an extension of a long-running ‘Cold War’ like divide among states at the United Nations. The US along with its NATO allies believe in creating voluntary non-binding norms for cybersecurity through the application of international law in its entirety while Russia, China and its allies in the Shanghai Co-operation Organization (SCO) reject the premise that international law applies in its entirety and call for the negotiation of an independent treaty for cyberspace that lays down binding obligations on states.

Critical role

The private sector has begun to play a critical role in breaking this deadlock. Recent history is testament to catalytic roles played by non-state actors in cementing global co-operative regimes.

For example, Dupont — the world’s leading ChloroFluoroCarbon (CFC) producer — played a leading role in the 1970s and 1980s towards the development of The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer and gained positive recognition for its efforts.

Another example is the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) — a non-governmental organisation that played a crucial role in the development of the Geneva Conventions and its Additional Protocols, which regulate the conduct of atrocities in warfare by preparing initial drafts of the treaties and circulating them to key government players.

Similarly, in cyberspace, Microsoft’s Digital Geneva Convention which devised a set of rules to protect civilian use of the internet was put forward by Chief Legal Officer, Brad Smith two months before the fifth GGE met in 2017.

Despite the breakdown at the UN-GGE, Microsoft pushed on with the Tech Accords — a public commitment made by (as of today) 69 companies “agreeing to defend all customers everywhere from malicious attacks by cyber-criminal enterprises and nation-states.”

Much like the ICRC, Microsoft leads commendable diplomatic efforts with the Paris Call as they reached out to states, civil society actors and corporations for their endorsement.

Looking Forward

Private sector-led normative efforts towards securing cyberspace are redundant in the absence of three key recommendations. First, is the implementation of best practices at the organisational level through the implementation of robust cyber defense mechanisms, the detection and mitigation of vulnerabilities and breach notifications — both to consumer and the government.

Second, is the development of mechanisms that enables direct co-operation between governments and private actors at the domestic level. In India, a Joint Working Group between the Data Security Council of India (DSCI) and the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) was set up in 2012 to explore a Private Public Partnership on cyber-security in India , which has great potential but is yet to report any tangible outcomes.

The third and final point is the recognition that their efforts need to result in a plurality of states coming to the negotiating table. The absence of the US, China and Russia in the Paris Call are eerily reminiscent of the lack of US participation in Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations, which was one of the reasons for its ultimate failure.

Microsoft needs to keep on calling with Paris but Beijing, Washington and Alibaba need to pick up.