Mistakes were made: ‘We tortured some folks.’

We tortured some folks

Following in the footsteps of President Obama and his frank admission, ‘We tortured some folks’, several historical figures also came clean this week:

Michael Hayden, head of the NSA after 9/11: ‘We tapped some calls.’

Richard Nixon, on the Watergate scandal: ‘We bugged some bros.’

Dick Fuld, on the implosion of Lehman Brothers: ‘We lost some dough.’

Pol Pot, on his strategy to purify Kampuchea through a return to the land: ‘We worked some peeps to death.’

Reynhard Heydrich, on the subject of Kristallnacht in November 1938: ‘We smashed some windows.’

Stalin, on the subject of the forced famine of the kulaks in the 1930s: ‘We starved some dudes.’

Field Marshal Douglas Haig, on the subject of the Western Front in the First World War: ‘We dug some trenches.’



Lighthouse Erected in the Great Sea of Time? You be the judge

I think that it is great that military commanders now have reading lists (who doesn’t have one these days?).  Encouraging military professionals to understand their profession in ways other than by dint of their own experience alone is a worthwhile endeavour and should be encouraged.

This sentiment, of course, depends on the assumption that all books so chosen have a contribution to make towards the noble aims of such an enterprise.  But what is one to make of ‘bad books’?

On the Commandant of the US Marine Corps’s Professional Reading List, I found and read this book: The Warrior Ethos by Stephen Pressman.  It is required reading for every Marine, regardless of rank or role.  And to me, that is a shame.

The book is chock full of bumper-sticker aphorisms, many of which are contradictory, the bulk of which are sexist, some downright misogynist.  The book advocates a turn to ‘subjective control’ of the military, rather than ‘objective control’, on the basis that the distinctions between the military culture and the civilian one are unhealthy.

A confusing–even worrying–choice, therefore, and one that needs defending if it is to be appreciated.

Bring it.


On Accountability: The Tragedy of Srebrenica

“It is not only what we do, but also what we do not do, for which we are accountable.”  Molière

The massacre of 8,000 Muslim Bosnian men at Srebrenica in July 1995 was genocide, the vilest crime against humanity in the international legal statute book.  Of that there can be no doubt.  Who is accountable for it, however, is slightly less clear.  This week’s landmark Dutch ruling adds another dimension to the issue, one that clouds, not clarifies, the matter.

Individual Responsibility

At the individual level, there have been a number of convictions and prosecutions at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia for the slaughter committed.  Krtić and Blagojević were convicted, while several others, including Milošević, Karadžić and Mladić, have been accused, charged, and/or prosecuted for their involvement.   National courts in Serbia, Bosnia and elsewhere have also carried out trials of those responsible, many for individual acts of murder, rather than genocide. The number of people actually involved and responsible for these obscene crimes is, undoubtedly, much larger than those prosecuted; there is rumoured to be a list held in Banja Luka with over 25,000 names on it, 800 or so kept secret.  This failure of humanity, it seems, had many fathers.  

Collective Responsibility

Above the level of the individual, though, how has accountability been allocated?

In 1999, then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan apportioned blame on the ‘international community’ and the senior leadership of the UN for failing to protect the people of Srebrenica.  He re-iterated this in 2005 on the 10th anniversary of the massacre, repeating that the UN was partially to blame.  In 2001, the parliament of France claimed that France had failed in its duties as a member of the Security Council and had not done enough to prevent the tragedy.  The governments of Serbia and Republika Srpska have oscillated, sometimes appearing to take responsibility (by apologizing), but often pointing out that the massacre was the work of individuals, not of the state itself.

Since Nuremberg the idea that an individual can escape responsibility by claiming to have been ‘simply following orders’ has been repeatedly shown to be an insufficient defence.  However, that is not to say that it does not continue to form the basis for attempts to side-step accountability.  Duch, the notorious commandant and torturer-in-chief of the Khmer Rouge’s S21 detention facility, used it vociferously at both his trial and his appeal before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).

What is less clear, though, is the opposite relationship: at what threshold do we hold accountable the organisation for the crimes of its members?  The principle of command, or superior, responsibility can hold commanders responsible for not doing enough to prevent or stop war crimes being committed by their subordinates, but applications of the principle are not as straightforward as one might expect, as rulings since 1945 have repeatedly shown.

Even so, the notion of superior responsibility merely moves the level of individual accountability up a notch or two. What about the collective, especially the state?  The admissions and apologies mentioned above are all fine and good, and some of them are probably even genuinely felt, but they are voluntary actions.  They come with no penalties or sanctions.  They are not the judgments or adjudications of others, against legal or normative standards, but, rather, internally determined.  Some of the apologies, such as the one from the Republika Srpska, for instance, do not mention the word ‘genocide’, acknowledging only that 1000s of people were illegally killed.

It is interesting to note that despite several international and national prosecutions (which have led to some convictions) indicating that a genocide did take place and that individuals were responsible,  when Serbia (and Montenegro) was taken to the International Court of Justice by Bosnia for the genocide, the state was not found to be culpable.

The ICJ ruled that states, in principle, can be held responsible for genocide. It also ruled that genocide did occur in at least one instance during the Bosnian war — at Srebrenica, when some 8,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred in 1995, at the hands of the Bosnian Serb Army (VRS). The court also found “conclusive evidence” that numerous other killings and massacres of Muslims occurred in other parts of Bosnia.  But crucially, the ICJ found that these atrocities were not enough to prove the “necessary specific intent” to liquidate an entire group that is needed for a genocide conviction. In other words, despite evidence of atrocities and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, as well as evidence that the Bosnian Serb Army received logistical and military assistance from Belgrade, Bosnia failed to prove that Serbia’s leaders at the time set out to physically liquidate Bosnia’s Muslims and acted to fulfill this plan.  (Source)

Republika Srpska, a constituent entity of Bosnia itself, has never been taken to the ICJ to account for the actions of the Bosnia Serb Army during the war, including the genocide at Srebrenica, despite several of its military commanders being prosecuted and convicted for war crimes.

This makes an incredible (and somewhat perverse) contrast with the Netherlands.  On the basis that it was their soldiers, working under a UN mandate (but ultimately remaining, inescapably, under Dutch national or full command) that did not prevent, and indeed in some way facilitated, the massacre, the Dutch cabinet resigned on 16 April 2002.  The government felt that it was responsible not only for the battalion’s performance, but for deploying them in the first place and maintaining them there despite problems with the UN mandate.  While this may also be seen as an ‘internal and voluntary’ step, it was one with real consequences and conforms with the highest principles of responsible government, not to mention collective responsibility.

The Netherlands last week went a step further.  A Dutch court found that the government of the Netherlands is responsible for the deaths of at least 300 of the victims at Srebrenica because its “peacekeeping force should have known that the Muslims were likely to be killed by the Serbs” and, therefore, should not have ‘handed them over’.  Here we have a legal adjudication formally declaring that a state is responsible for a part of the genocide.  Financial compensation to the victims of the families will no doubt follow.  The fact that the judgment didn’t come from an external body, but rather a domestic court, is all the more incredible, proving that the rule of law can and does prevail in some liberal democracies.

Back to Bosnia via Versailles

A great deal of the popular attention paid to international law over the past two decades has been on individual accountability, at the level of soldiers (in the cases of ICTY and ICTR) and of heads of state (in the cases of the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the ICC).  While the ICJ ‘Genocide’ ruling in the case of Serbia in 2007 was in important first step in the process that may see states held accountable for the actions of those working in their name, it was largely unsatisfying.  The actions of the Dutch government and judiciary before and after it demonstrate how at odds international law, common sense, politics, and public opinion can be.

Of course, it didn’t used to be this way.  There is plenty of precedent for collective guilt.  It just fell out of fashion.  The First World War ended with the Treaty of Versailles, Article 231 of which unambiguously stated:

The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.

(Along with accepting responsibility for the war, the German state was forced to pay reparations, the final payment of which took place on 3 October 2010.)

From the outset, the notion of war guilt was controversial and Hitler’s objections to it were warmly received in many corners, including by some in the West.  Still, variations on war guilt, in the form of reparations, were imposed on several countries after the Second World War, and on Iraq after the first Gulf War.

Still, we see a contemporary reluctance to look at collective or national accountability.  Indeed the the crime of ‘aggression’ is now an individual matter under the ICC statutes.

How will the circle be squared?  Where is the balance between the individual and the state when it comes to war crimes?  There are no clear answers.  The words of one legal scholar (Beatrice I. Bonafè) sum up the current debate thus:

It is a settled principle that states incur international responsibility when they breach international obligations, and all the more so when these breaches are particularly serious, that is, when they amount to international crimes. On the other hand, today it is undisputed that international law provides for the criminal responsibility of those individuals who commit international crimes. What is much more uncertain is the relationship between these two regimes of international responsibility, that is, the connections between state and individual responsibility when the same or analogous conduct, performed respectively by individuals and by states, gives rise to both individual and state crimes.

In the meantime, the families and survivors of Srebrenica continue to search for justice, and only The Netherlands has meaningfully ‘stepped up’ to accept their part in the tragedy. Sadly, there are likely to be further chapters of this debate, as there is no sign of individual or collective atrocity ending anytime soon, whether in Gaza, Syria, Iraq, the Ukraine, Burma, or elsewhere. 


The Books of August: A Reader’s Guide to the Centenary of the start of the First World War

Unless you are completely illiterate (in which case, unless your friend or Siri is kind enough to read this post aloud, you will be missing out on some very witty stuff, Dear Read…I mean Dear Non-Reader), you will not have failed to notice the literal deluge of books out and about on the First World War.  Scholars may not be very well socialised (sorry, but it is true.  Some of my best friends are academics) but they figured out about recycling yonks before the rest of us.

There are ‘new’ books, there are re-written ‘special editions’, there are ‘popularised revised editions’, there are ‘re-issued classics’…the list goes on.  Some focus on the causes of the war, others concentrate on the combat, or a particular ‘under-appreciated’ theatre, or the homefront, or the legacy.  Buy them, read them, go on, I dare you.

Why have all these books been written?  A good question, and I am glad you asked.  The short answer, to paraphrase Barbara Tuchman, is this:

To turn around the publication of a million books at the very moment of commemoration would have taken a more iron nerve than most publishers disposed of.

Much of the output this year is re-hashed, or recast, work from research conducted long ago.  Very little ‘new’ evidence, say from a recently unlocked archive, is contained within these works.  It is not to say that they are poorly written; they are not.  The prose is as good as there is to be found.  But, really, honestly, many of the books did not need to be written.  They are cash cows many of them, publishing houses’ attempts to take advantage of the time.  It is a shame.  And so it goes.

Moving on from my pitiful attempt to stand, Canute-like, against the tide of wanton commercialism, I would say that the First World War was terrible and terribly important.  It deserves our study and our scrutiny.  But in doing so, I put forward, Dear Readers, two key pieces of guidance, two words of wisdom, perhaps.  

1.  Do not make corny, irrelevant attempts to tie together the situations of 1914 and 2014.  The South China Sea is not the ‘powderkeg of Asia'; Iraq is not the ‘sick man of the Arab World’. Putin is not the Tsar.  ‘Why not?’, I hear you shout.  Because.  That was then and this is now.  Our own day’s troubles (and they are legion) are rooted in history, to be sure.  But they are rooted in their own, contingent history.  They cannot be crammed into a tidy template and made to fit an existing script.  That’s why not.

2.  Upon reading a book, ask yourself if it can pass the acid test: can it explain why it all happened?  Many will try.  It was because of alliances, some say.  It was not because of alliances, others will intone; the alliances actually prevented it from happening earlier.  It was the Kaiser!  It was the Serbs! It was the aristocracy!  Even books that do not have as their primary aim the explanation of the origins of the war will have, embedded somewhere in their narrative, a short-form for why it all came about.  But do any of those explanations actually work?  Do they increase our understanding of how it all began and for what purpose?  Most of the time they turn on points of historiography, or even ideology, rather than actual insight into the events.

After having read perhaps more than my share of these books over the past 30 years or so, I still wonder if any of us can really give an answer to the key question, set by Baldric in Blackadder Goes Forth:

The thing is: The way I see it, these days there’s a war on, right? and, ages ago, there wasn’t a war on, right?    So, there must have been a moment when there not being a war on went away, right? and there being a war on came along.   So, what I want to know is: How did we get from the one case of affairs to the other case of affairs?

How indeed.


Are coups bad? This one, or every one?

The US reaction to last week’s coup in Thailand appears clear and robust:

“I am disappointed by the decision of the Thai military to suspend the constitution and take control of the government after a long period of political turmoil…”

However, what are we to make of Kerry’s second phrase?

“…there is no justification for this military coup.”

Are we to understand that under some circumstances coups are, or could be, justified?  If so, is this a helpful statement in terms of setting normative boundaries in International Politics or does it merely reflect an underlying Realpolitik?


The Whole Problem with the World: War and The New Liberal Way of War

Bertrand Russell, pictured above, is credited with saying,

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.

And that is just the problem–we in the West lack the certainty necessary to actually get anything done, while those we deem to be fanatic fools are getting away–quite literally–with murder.  We sit hemming and hawing, worrying about things ‘on the one hand’, trying to second guess what might happen ‘on the other hand’.  So worried about offending anyone or putting a foot wrong, we (who certainly think of ourselves as being wise, or at least wiser) refuse to put our foot down.

We see this played out in the absolutely craven lack of leadership evident in David Cameron’s ‘strategic’ vote on Syria in the House of Commons.  It’s like he took a page from David Brent’s script:

It’s out of my hands, and even if it weren’t, my hands are tied.

We sense it in the advice prospered by Anatol Lieven in his recent post about Ukraine on the NYRB blog.  Let’s not do anything rash, he suggests.  We should aim for finding a compromise solution which allows a ‘reasonable majority’ to regain power in Ukraine.  He claims that, “It is absolutely essential for Western governments to focus on what they can do to avoid war, preserve democracy, and keep Ukraine united.”

Very reasonable…and an utter load of bollocks.  We cannot have all three.  We can avoid war, but we will have to sacrifice some amount of democracy and unity to achieve it.  But that is a sacrifice we are more than willing to make.

When Michael Howard spoke of war of the liberal conscience, he was pointing out that there was tendency for liberal principles to motivate states to war;  jus ad bellum and all that. Now our liberalism seems to be all about reasonableness, and a certain ‘strategic flexibility’ with regard to our principles.  We diddle while those in Damascus and Donetsk burn.

Russell was right, but, then again, he plagiarized his sentiment from a poet.  Writing in 1919 in The Second Coming, Yeats lamented

The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity

Liberal?  Maybe, in some watered down, post post-neocon version.  Reasonable?  Eminently.  Pathetic?  You bet.

i am sorry

Be very, very quiet: Hayden Speaks

Big Brother?  Small fry.  Dr. Strangelove?  Amateur.  This interview in Der Spiegel reveals that the former chief of the NSA sees the world in a way most of us do not.  A few gems, if I might be allowed, Dear Reader?

Hayden: We Americans think of military doctrine and “domains” — land, sea, air, space. As part of our military thought, we now think of cyber as a domain. Let me define air dominance for you: Air dominance is the ability of the United States to use the air domain at times and places of its own choosing while denying its use to its adversaries at times and places when it is in our legitimate national interest to do so. It’s just a natural thing for him to transfer that to the cyber domain. I do not think it [the NSA] is a threat to world peace and commerce any more than the American Air Force is a threat to world peace and commerce.

Uhhh…okay.  The problem with analogies is, General, both parts have to be…awww…skip it.

Hayden: The whole question about the chancellor has made this much more difficult. Although I’m not prepared to apologize for conducting intelligence against another nation, I am prepared to apologize for embarrassing a good friend. I am prepared to apologize for the fact we couldn’t keep whatever it was we may or may not have been doing secret and therefore put a good friend in a very difficult position. Shame on us. That’s our fault.

Sooo…you’re sorry you did it?  Or sorry that you may or may not have done it?  Or sorry that someone found out?  But still…sorry, right?

Hayden: …to be perfectly candid with you and your readers, the president promised to not surveil Angela Merkel. This was not a promise in perpetuity that no head of the German government would be surveilled.

OK, so not that sorry then.

Enjoy the rest of the article.  Good stuff.

civ mil rels

Teaching Civil-Military Relations: Top Fiction Readings/Films?

Dear Readers, although I am the quintessential bureaucrat (Balzac is my middle name, after all), I also dabble in teaching from time to time.  I am looking to refresh a course on civil-military relations and, as part of that process, to spruce up the fictional offerings with which I pepper my syllabus.  So, given that crowdsourcing is the new analogue for wisdom, I am seeking your suggestions.

Of course, there are the usual canonical choices. For books, there are Starship Troopers and 1984.  For films there is Dr. Strangelove.   I am not looking at ‘war’ more generally (Christopher Coker’s wonderful new book Men at War from Hurst ploughs this fertile ground with effortless aplomb); I very much want to focus on allowing students to examine civil-military relations in an applied setting, albeit a fictional one.  The works can highlight the relationship between the political executive and the military and/or between the military and society.  While I am sure there will be a number of pieces set in America, other milieux would be more than welcome.  Past, present, future; literal, allegorical…bring them on!


One Thing to Rule them All?

It is an academic conceit to believe that there is one single unifying, underlying factor that is responsible for animating or driving social phenomena.  Usually, a scholar’s home department or discipline is touted as the codex, the intellectual skeleton key, to unlocking all that there is to know about whatever it is under discussion.  Supporting such elegant explanations for the mess we call life can be tempting…and often rewarding (in terms of reputation and money).  Samuel Huntington’s ‘The Clash of Civilizations?’ is a case in point: strip away the extraneous stuff (the epiphenomena of power, money, etc.) and we find one, dominating ‘thing’ that drives human conflict.  [Sean Coombs provides an alternate explanation here.  Word.]

The events of the past few weeks have driven people to postulate such reductionist explanations for the conflicts in Thailand, Ukraine, and Venezuela.  [Personally, I think conflicts might just be like tropical storms and we were up to T, U and V in the alphabet…]  Allow me, Dear Reader, to play a few for you below.

  • Geography.  Russia needs it’s ‘near abroad’ and will do anything to preserve it, including carving up Ukraine.
  • History.  Thailand’s current political conflict is a repeat of 2010, 2008, 2006, 1993, 1991, 1973, 1970…all the way back to 1932.
  • Nationalism.  The ethnic affinity of Russian speakers, regardless of where they are, explains why Moscow moved to seize the Crimea.
  • Personality.  Nicolás Maduro ain’t Hugo Chavez and that’s why the people are on the streets.  Putin is Putin; Obama is Obama.  ‘Nuff said.
  • People.  The will of the masses cannot be denied.  The expression of this will explains what is happening in Bangkok/Kiev/Caracas.
  • Class.  The Middle Class desire for more self-determination led to political upheavals in Bangkok/Kiev/Caracas.
  • Ideology.  The attractiveness of the EU ideal is an unstoppable force, what with its democracy, social justice, and tolerance.  The battle in Kiev was one of progressives vs. reactionaries.
  • Economics.  The West is doing nothing about Crimea because it fears Russian economic pressure, in the form of capital flight from The City or increased gas prices in Berlin.
  • Psychology.  Vanity, misperception, egotism, megalomania–all explain why the leaders (on both sides of each conflict) made the choices they did, which led to the various crises.
  • Gender.  The current political crisis in Thailand is driven by male non-acceptance of a female leader.
  • The Internet.  The rise of social media–and the ease of communications that it, because of The Internet, engenders–explains why ideas can spread so quickly and globally, allowing people to see what they are missing.

It is surely the case that all these factors are at play in each of the conflicts mentioned–and a hockey-sock more besides.  As attractive as these theories may be, they are all–sadly–incomplete.  There is no one ‘master variable’ that can explain complex social phenomena like revolution, rebellion, and war.  Life is complicated and, therefore, so must our analyses be.  Solutions–if they exist at all–are unlikely to uni-dimensional.

We need holistic approaches to understand and hopefully resolve these kinds of social conflicts.  Young people of today, mark my words: Do yourself a favour and invest in developing a wide range of disciplinary tools.  Study history, but not to the exclusion of everything else.  By all means, learn economics, but not only economics.  [Good news!  KCL offers just such as thing in its War Studies Department.  Roll up!  Roll up!]  Learn a language.  Travel the world.  Experience other traditions and points of view.  Don’t drink your own bathwater.

And then when you are older, fatter, and grayer (or is that just me?) try and resist making catholic explanations based on the one or two things that you actually think you understand.  By all means make a contribution, but try to do it with a modicum of humility.

Now that would be powerful.


An extension of politics by other means: Security and Internet Governance, Pt 1.

“To live is to war with trolls.” Henrik Ibsen

“To live is to war with trolls.”      Henrik Ibsen


Here at KOW, we do talk a bit about cyber issues and all that, from time to time.  (Heck, some of our contributors have even made quite a name from this type of thing.  Dave Betz, Thomas Rid, and Tim Stevens).  There is a feeling, though, that we in the ‘hard security’ fields (those concerned with military, police, and intelligence affairs) tend to get cybersecurity wrong.  We don’t do well at strategy at the best of times, it is claimed, but do even worse when it comes to strategies in the cyber domain.

Now, dear Reader, if you know me, you know that I am a bit of a Luddite, a bit of a technophobe, and a bit of a curmudgeon.  So colour me as surprised as the next guy to find myself at the 8th Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Bali, Indonesia last week.  (The location had nothing to do with my attendance, by the way).  This post is the first of two containing my reflections on security and the internet, as prompted by the proceedings of the IGF.

Let me start by stating that, contrary to my low expectations, far from being a ‘geek-fest’, an orgy of übertech, a smorgasbord of terms like ccTLDs, IoT, and the like, there were actually some very interesting points being raised in Bali, which should have a direct bearing on how we (in the War Studies/International Security communities) regard the idea of internet security.

It’s the governance, stupid. 

In the ‘Internet ecosystem’ there are several existing notions of how the Internet should be governed.  First, there are those who believe that it should be regulated by states, along the same lines of other forms of communications regulation.  States should control access to the internet, through licensing, auctions of frequencies, and protections of both the rights and responsibilities of operators and users.  Governments worry that freedom is really a veil of secrecy for terrorists, pedophiles, and drug-dealers.  From this point of view, the internet needs to be subject to the same kinds of controls as ordinary life is.

Second, there are others who believe that the internet should be viewed as a commodity, and left to the market and the various commercial entities to sort out.  States should take a very hands-off approach, letting the ‘invisible hand’ of the market allocate usage of the internet in the most ‘efficient’ way possible.

Third, groups of technical experts, those involved in the actually engineering and construction of the Internet, see the entire thing as being beyond anyone’s control.  They believe that technology itself is the only restraint on the Internet, and are not much bothered by arguments surrounding content filtering, or localized routing, preferring to look at the ways and means, and not the ends, of these options.

Fourth, there are others who view the internet as a sort of digital commons, a place for all to express their various interests and concerns.  This commons should be a free domain—access should be unfettered, privacy respected, and content uncensored.

Not surprisingly, those who espouse these approaches do not always get along.  State-centric proponents have come under fire recently, as Edward Snowden’s revelations have confirmed what many have long suspected: states are hungry to know everything that goes on across the web, eager to look into every nook and cranny, all under the aegis of national security.  Commercial players, too, have been seen to attempt to crowd out others on the ‘Net.  For instance, they want assurances—from states—that the frequencies or web addresses they buy will enjoy the kind of property rights they would in the ‘real world’.  Furthermore, commercial players—like Google and Facebook—are claiming user data as their own, be it meta-data or selfies or GPS locations, much to the chagrin (and sometimes surprise) of users.  User groups assert that the internet is being ruined because of the actions of governments and firms: privacy, access, affordability, grassroot ‘DIY’ projects and the advantages of anonymity are all becoming increasingly difficult to maintain in a world of government snooping and industry monopolies.

Now what, I hear you ask Dear Reader, does this have to do with KOW?  The key conclusion that I arrived at is that, unsurprisingly, issues of internet security are entangled with issues of political philosophy and, somewhat more interestingly, social identity.  The corollary of this conclusion is that this is precisely why we do cybersecurity so poorly: we ignore this entanglement.  Just like in real life, security is a subset of governance, which is a function of politics, in all its glory and misery.  Security cannot stand alone, separate from the larger issues, separate from the larger community or ecosystem.  A simple statement, but one with some often unheeded implications.

What is the Internet?

For any of this to make any sense, a set of questions of primary importance must be addressed.  The problem is that this set of questions is almost completely unanswerable.  What is the Internet?  To whom does it belong?  Is it an extension of the telecommunications infrastructure, and therefore regulatable in the same way telephone networks are?  Some people think so—most states do.  The main UN agency dealing with the internet pre-dates the internet and the UN.  Originally the International Telegraph Union, formed in 1865, the ITU believes there is a linear link from the dots and dashes of the telegraph to the 1s and 0s of the internet.  That perspective shapes a great deal of its policy thinking when it comes to internet governance and security.  As we move into the next frontier of the internet (such as the Internet of Things, where your fridge will share your eating habits with Google and the NSA—not necessarily in that order), will such a perspective remain relevant?

Some believe that the internet is fundamentally different from anything else that has come before it.  It is not just a network, but a common good, not just an information superhighway, but an on-ramp to development.  People in developing countries do not see the internet as merely as a commercial commodity, but rather a lifeline—the lifeline—to a better life for them and their children.  It is both a medium and a conduit for social interaction.  The governance of something so existential, many feel, cannot be left to a handful of states or firms.  To deny, or even to fail to facilitate, access to someone is seen as a matter of grave importance.  One participant at IGF put it, hopefully with some hyperbole, thus: “Internet shutdowns by governments and operators is [sic] a cybercrime against humanity.”

What’s it all about?

It is clear from the conversation going on here that there is no universally appreciated perspective.  Just as there are a number of ideas about governance, there are several points of view about security.  Allow me to put forward several of the ideas floating around, some explicit, some unarticulated.

1.  Security is about trust.  And trust is about expectations.  While governments might think their massive, pervasive surveillance is about increasing security, it might actually be reducing the level of trust people have in the Internet and in government.  For instance, the technical ‘internet security’ people, those responsible for keeping the ‘physical internet’ ship-shape (finding and removing botnets, for example) insist that the level of cooperation and information exchange that they rely on to sort out (remediate) networks following attacks actually decreases when ‘national security’ entities become involved.  Having ministries of defence or homeland security, or intelligence services, being actively involved in a ‘incident’ actually reduces the likelihood of the issue being resolved quickly.  It is felt that their involvement lowers the level of trust, something which has not been an issue—even across borders—at the technical level.  So there is a trade off between national security (was that attack a form of cyber terrorism or even cyberwar?) and internet security (was that attack a single incident of vandalism or does it represent something more widespread?).  A less secure internet (caused by a lack of trust and therefore reduced collaboration across borders) is likely to be a better conduit for attacks that could impact national security.  If security is a product of trust, we can assume that the product of hypocrisy, deceit, and suspicion is distrust, which in turn engenders insecurity.

2.  In terms of politics, the Net has permeable membrane. Even those who do agree with a ‘state first, top down’ approach to internet security (and governance) disagree about which states should be in charge.  Brazil—championing a ‘non-US centric’ agenda along with India and South Africa—has rocked the community here by announcing a ‘non-summit’ to be held in Rio in April, dealing with issues of internet governance.  They are proposing a new UN agency (!!) to be established in order to ‘coordinate’ all the existing ‘organs’ of the internet, including ICANN, ITU, and IGF.  While this is an immediate reaction to the revelations of Edward Snowden, it is easy to detect a connection to wider political debates.  This is an outgrowth of the BRIC movement, indicative of the growing political confidence of countries, like Brazil, and their public flexing of muscles/thumbing of noses at the dominance of the US.

3.  Certain ‘technical issues’ themselves are sometimes used as cloaking devices, hiding larger political agendas.  For example, even something as mundane as the fight against spam has, in some countries, been hijacked as a way of imposing content filtering, restricting freedom of speech.  Similarly, items that at first blush seem to be no-brainers, are not universally agreed upon by all internet players.  Surely the kinds of harm that we seek to limit off-line should be discouraged, or better yet, eliminated, on-line?  Not necessarily.  One IGF participant tweeted, “Governments use excuses like child pornography and similar cases in order to regulate internet but this must stop.”  Perhaps in echo, at the end of the IGF, the Indonesian chair proudly announced that his country “guarantees online freedom of speech, but also protects its citizens from pornography and anti-Islamic propaganda on the Internet.”

4.  Just because it is not ‘state based’ does not mean it is universally legitimate.  Commercial organisations, like ICANN, Google, Facebook, or Amazon, are viewed as American organizations, with all the baggage that comes with that moniker.  ICANN touts itself as being legitimate because it is commercial, but it is seen by many as just another red, white, and blue hegemon.  Cooperation, co-option, and collaboration, and calumny are mixed to form a rather toxic stew, made up of a commercial broth with states holding the spoon.  As one participant made clear to ICANN in a workshop, “Policy authority for non-tech issues is not safer in your hands than with governments.”  There are allegations that corporations, like Facebook and Google, are actually monetizing their cooperation with US authorities. The logic is that they are being ‘reimbursed’ for the information that they pass on.  And what has been reported as their ‘making it harder’ for the US to snoop is in fact just now ‘more expensive’ for the government—and more lucrative for the firms themselves.  This is not going to be regarded as a good thing by many internet users.  As usual, a Freudian slip might just give the game away.  Speaking on a panel about internet surveillance, Google representative Ross LaJeunesse that his “country…company” had legitimate concerns about internet governance.

5.  Governance of the internet is about more that just rules.  One NGO, The Internet Society, believes that because “The Internet is for everyone… [we need] to find the next social structure that will guide the Internet in the future.”  Many traditionalists, including security experts, are not thinking about ‘social structures’ when it comes to security.  Indeed, they are looking at rules and regulation, and the kinds of technological tools and tricks that can be designed or exploited in order to put them into practice. (Backdoors, sidedoors, trapdoors—the word was used so much I expected to see Jim Morrison stroll in at any minute). When they think of the internet, they think about ways of making ‘it’ secure, and about ways of securing us from the dangers that lurk within it.  Traditionalists take it for granted that states will be at the fore, providing solutions.  They look for ‘coherent’ strategies, and expect others to ‘collaborate’ and ‘cooperate’ in order to achieve our objectives.

State-centric actors (such as security agencies) try and cut through what they regard as supercilious and superfluous utopianism about the internet.  By doing so, they may be able to put in place the kinds of systems that allow them to monitor chat rooms or read your ‘meta-data’, but they may never be able to gain or maintain real legitimacy, much less trust.  This, of course, may not keep the leadership of the NSA or the CIA awake at night, but it does not sit well with commercial companies who, rightly or wrongly, are judged as being wholly compliant with the requests of these agencies.  Nor, increasingly, does it do much to cheer up ‘friends and relations’ to know that their head of government’s handy is an open-line.  This week, the White House seems ready to admit that there should be ‘surveillance constraints’.

If this sounds like politics, and not technology, or even threats and risks, that’s because it is.  Security is an offspring of politics.  Neglecting that basic truth often stymies our attempts to make our world—real and virtual—safer.


Thus endeth part one.  My next post in this series will look at the implications of the diversity of actors involved in Internet governance and how maintaining their identities shapes the way they view how internet security should work.