Welcome to the Global Cyber Game

The Internet was once a beacon of freedom and hope, and it still could be. But now that governments are spending billions on Internet militarization there is a real risk that it could inadvertently become an instrument of global repression. What is needed is a way to make the Internet secure and at the same time preserve basic democratic freedoms.

In the 1990s there was a euphoric sense of Internet liberation. First the Internet radically democratised personal communications with an amazing new set of digital tools and then it revolutionized commerce, upending many traditional business models in a frenzy of disintermediation. Of course there was a dark side too, because where there is money and naive enthusiasm there are opportunities for crime. And where there are unprotected computers full of secret data there are easy pickings for spies.

This is what finally brought the military to attention. After waking up to the potential threat, the military mind has seized on the Internet as a new domain of warfare, with little regard for the impact this could have on civilian use of the Internet. Whenever there is a ‘security situation’ in a civilian setting and the military takes over, there is a risk that normal freedoms and rights are going to be a casualty. This is what’s happening now on the Internet, with two differences: one that it’s been happening largely out of sight, at least until recently, and two that it’s on a truly global scale.

Why is this important? The Internet is not just some foreign city-center square you’ve never heard of filled with demonstrators, it’s your back yard. It’s also your highway, your shopping mall, your schoolroom, your political meeting, your confidential doctor’s appointment, all those things where you hope you have a right to privacy, a right to free expression, and protection from persecution. If the Internet stops being these good things, it’s going to be far less useful than we thought and things could get pretty ugly.

Of course we don’t want to have our money stolen or our local power plant shut down over the Internet by a hostile power, which means it's important to make it secure. So is it inevitable that securing the Internet is going to put all its good features at risk? It certainly doesn’t have to be that way, but what we’re doing at the moment is definitely heading in that direction. We’re taking old ways of doing things and throwing them at a fundamentally new problem without stopping to think what we need to do differently.

The challenge is clear: we have to build a new understanding from the ground up that can guide state cyber policy and deliver the Internet safely to the next generation.

This challenge has been the main focus of my work over the past year, culminating in a report called The Global Cyber Game, recently published by the Defence Academy of the UK. The report offers, among other things, a systematic way of thinking about cyberpower and its use by a range of global players – potentially anyone using an Internet-connected device. It also emphasizes the enormous value of the civilian Internet, and its critical contribution to economic growth and social development, as the key things that Internet militarization should be aiming to protect. The report is available for download on the UK Defence Academy website.