Fork in the Road? UN General Assembly passes Russia-backed Resolution to fight Cybercrime.

By Sharngan Aravindakshan

On 19 November 2019, the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly passed a Russia-backed resolution. The resolution called for the establishment of an ad-hoc intergovernmental committee of experts “to elaborate a comprehensive international convention countering the use of information and communications technologies for criminal purposes” (A/C.3/74/L.11/Rev.1). China, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea and Syria were also some of the countries that sponsored the resolution. Notably, countries such as Russia, China and North Korea are all proponents of the internet-restrictive “cyber-sovereignty” model, as opposed to the free, open and global internet advocated by the Western bloc. Equally notably, India voted in favour of the resolution. The draft resolution, which was passed by a majority of 88-58 with 34 abstentions, can be accessed here.

The resolution was strongly opposed by most of the Western bloc, with the United States leading the fight against what they believe is a divisive attempt by Russia and China to create UN norms and standards permitting unrestricted state control of the internet. This is the second successful attempt by Russia and China, traditionally seen as outliers in cyberspace for their authoritarian internet regimes, to counter cybernorm leadership by the West. The resolution, to the extent it calls for the establishment of an open-ended ad hoc intergovernmental committee of experts “to elaborate a comprehensive international convention” on cybercrime, is also apparently a Russian proposal for an alternative to the Council of Europe’s Budapest Convention.

Similarly, last year, Russia and China successfully pushed for and established the Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG), also under the aegis of the United Nations, as an alternative to the US-led UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) in the attempt at making norms for responsible state behaviour in cyberspace. Hence, we now have two parallel UN based processes working on essentially the same issues in cyberspace. The Russians claim that both these processes  are complementary to each other, while others have stated that it was actually an attempt to delay consensus-building in cyberspace. In terms of outcome, scholars have noted the likelihood of either both processes succeeding or both failing, or what Dennis Broeders termed “Mutually Assured Diplomacy”.

Criticism

The Russia-backed cyber-crime resolution, while innocuously worded, has been widely criticized by civil society groups for its vagueness and for potentially opening the door to widespread human rights violations. In an open letter to the UN General Assembly, various civil society and academic groups have expressed the worry that “it could lead to criminalizing ordinary online behaviour protected under human rights law” and assailed the resolution for the following reasons:

  • The resolution fails to define “use of information and communication technologies for criminal purposes.” It is not clear whether this is meant to cover cyber-dependent crimes (i.e. crimes that can only be committed by using ICTs, like breaking into computer systems to commit a crime or DDoS attacks) or cyber-enabled crimes (i.e. using ICTs to assist in committing “offline” crimes, like child sexual exploitation). The broad wording of the text includes most crimes and this lack of specificity opens the door to criminalising even ordinary online behaviour;
  • The single reference to human rights in the resolution, i.e., “Reaffirming the importance of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms” is not strong enough to counter the growing trend among countries to use cybercrime legislation to violate human rights, nor does it recognize any positive obligation on the state to protect human rights.
  • It is essentially a move to negotiate a cybercrime convention or treaty, which will duplicate efforts. The Council of Europe’s Budapest Convention already has the acceptance of 64 countries that have ratified it. Also, there are already other significant international efforts underway in combating cybercrime including the UN Office on Drugs and Crime working on various related issues such as challenges faced by national laws in combating cybercrime (Cybercrime Depository) and the Open Ended Intergovernmental Expert Group Meeting on Cybercrime, which is due to release its report with its findings in 2021.

Wolves in the hen-house?

Russia’s record in human rights protection in the use of information and communications technology has been controversial. Conspicuously, this resolution comes just a few months after it passed its “sovereign-internet law”. The law grants the Kremlin the power to completely cut-off the Russian internet from the rest of the world. According to Human Rights Watch, the law obliges internet service providers to install special equipment that can track, filter, and reroute internet traffic, allowing the Russian government to spy, censor and independently block access to internet content ranging from a single message to cutting off Russia from the global internet or shutting down internet within Russia. While some experts have doubted the technical feasibility of isolating the Russian internet no matter what the government wants, the law has already come into force from 1 November 2019 and it definitely seems like Russia is going to try.

Apart from this, there have also been credible claims attributing various cyberattacks to Russia, including the 2007 attacks on Estonia, the 2008 attacks on Georgia and even the recent hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in the US. More recently, in a rare incident of collective public attribution, the US, the UK and the Netherlands called out Russia for targeting the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ (OPCW) investigation into the chemical attack on a former Russian spy in the U.K., and anti-doping organizations through cyberattacks in 2018.

China, another sponsor of the resolution, is also not far behind. According to the RAND Corporation, the most number of cyber-incidents including cyber theft from 2005- 2017 was attributed to China. Also, China’s Great Firewall is famous for allowing internet censorship in the country. A Russo-China led effort in international cybernorm making is now widely feared as portending stricter state control over the internet leading to more restrictions on civil liberties.

However, as a victim of growing cyber-attacks and as a country whose current public stance is against “data monopoly” by the West, India is going to need a lot more convincing by the Western bloc to bring it over to the “free, open and global” internet camp, as its vote in favour of this resolution shows. An analysis of the voting pattern for last year’s UNGA resolution on countering the use of ICT for criminal purposes and what it means for international cyber norm making can be accessed here.

Fractured Norm-making

This latest development only further splinters the already fractured global norm-making process in cyberspace. Countries such as the United States are also taking the approach of negotiating separate bilateral cyberspace treaties with “like-minded nations” to advance its “cyber freedom” doctrine and China is similarly advancing its own “cyber-sovereignty” doctrine alongside Russia.

Add to this mix the private sector’s efforts like Microsoft’s Cybersecurity Tech Accord (2018) and the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace (2018), and it becomes clear that any unified multilateral approach to cybernorm making now seems extremely difficult, if not impossible. With each initiative paving its own way, it now remains to be seen whether these roads all lead to cyberspace stability.

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