Stéphane Duguin, CEO of the CyberPeace Institute argues that Geneva has the potential to give birth to coherent narratives across stakeholders in Internet Governance. Geneva can be more than an international hub where people convene and discuss; it can be an incubator for innovative solutions to achieve CyberPeace*.
100 years ago, La Société des Nations paved the way for Geneva’s footprint, building upon the city’s tradition of bridging communities, connecting nations, and providing a neutral platform for the free expression of arts and political ideas. Over a century, the river crossing evolved into an international centre providing for political, academic, and economic interactions through a vibrant ecosystem of governmental representations, multi-stakeholder initiatives, and international and non-governmental organizations. This ecosystem, benefiting from the proximity of the United Nations and its affiliated bodies, has allowed for the creation of human-centric policies and partnerships for disarmament, global health, fighting landmine proliferation and climate change. Because of its horizontal nature across these global challenges, it is no surprise that Internet Governance ranks highly on the Geneva agenda.
In the past decades we have seen a multiplication of initiatives on Internet Governance established in Geneva, such as The Internet Society, the Geneva Digital talks or the Swiss Digital Initiative. Beyond the cyber centric initiatives, we have also witnessed a strong effort from “historical” Geneva actors, such as UNIDIR through its technical support to the UN GGE and UN OEWG, the ICRC’s work on operationalization of humanitarian law in the cyberspace, the WEF Centre for Cybersecurity, the WHO’s work on digital health, and the International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) focus on Internet related standards. This non-exhaustive list demonstrates the robust profile of Geneva as a city and Switzerland as a whole, notably through the Internet Governance Forum or the EPFL Centre for Digital Trust.
This environment creates a variety of opportunities and challenges. On one hand, the initiatives listed above can benefit from Geneva’s savoir faire of transforming international governance discussions into actions.
For example, Geneva is the platform to coordinate humanitarian help to fight pandemics or to ensure that victims of large-scale violations of human rights can be heard. This experience can aid the Internet Governance community.
It can ensure that Internet Governance discussions will not happen in a vacuum, as it is easy to forget that governing the Internet is not about governing networks or infrastructures, but protecting and empowering people. It is about ensuring that civilian communities can benefit from a cyberspace at peace, everywhere.
On the other hand, the proliferation of initiatives might widen existing gaps. Internet Governance is a multidisciplinary field, and due to the multi-layered nature of the Internet, actors of diverse backgrounds have very distinct focus areas. Some actors might concentrate for instance on infrastructure and standards, others on the rules governing digital services and content online, and others on normative frameworks for responsible behaviour in the cyberspace. Any of these fields are potentially prone to abuse but each one of them bears very different challenges, and most initiatives require specific specializations that have the potential to create blind spots.
These parallel worlds of Internet Governance, whilst situated in a small geographical area across the riverbed, are not known to be very porous to each other. For example, it is a challenge to ensure that technology informs diplomacy in real time, and articulates how a technical breakthrough disrupts the policy environment. Let us remember how Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau shaped 30 years of norms from within CERN, when they issued their proposals for the World Wide Web. Shaping the technical reality of cyberspace immediately causes an impact to its normative framework at a global scale.
This siloed approach between actors makes it complex to address the challenges of cyberspace. As a matter of fact, these different communities are interdependent as they are facing the same critical questions: How to discuss a common good when there is a serious underrepresentation of certain areas of the world in cyber discussions? How to advance norms and regulations? How to reach consensus on sovereignty and cyberspace? How to create incentive for state and non-state actors to operationalize norms? How to enforce consequences when norms are violated? How to assist targeted civilian populations in a scalable and sustainable way, when there is such an asymmetry in the capabilities of attackers and defenders? How to ensure accountability, when state-actors and related proxies are operating in a culture of obfuscation, benefiting from a technical landscape which evolves at an exponential pace (i.e. AI, 5G)?
All of these challenges have attracted the establishment of the CyberPeace Institute in Geneva.
We acknowledge Internet Governance as a complex process, however, we do not forget that civilian interests should be at the center of our actions. Internet Governance is about ensuring the readiness of a normative framework towards the sophistication of malicious acts of state and non-state actors. It is about ensuring that this framework provides for the tools and methodologies to hold malicious actors accountable, and that conducting a malicious act bears consequence.
Geneva’s history is known for breakthroughs in connecting international communities for noble purposes, from the Alabama Arbitration to the first Conference on Disarmament. In this context, Geneva has the potential to give birth to coherent narratives across stakeholders in Internet Governance. Geneva can be more than an international hub where people convene and discuss; it can be an incubator for innovative solutions to achieve cyber peace.
The risks are high as the competition is global and fierce. We live in a time where leading normative discussions goes hand in hand with implementing physical infrastructures, which means imposing geopolitical power. There is a need for a neutral and multi-lateral platform, with values of impartiality and inclusiveness at its core. We live in the age of digital interdependence, and in this age we need a platform for cooperation. We believe that Geneva is offering this space, and it is our mission as the CyberPeace Institute to participate and contribute to this common endeavor.
*Source: The article was published in the Fondation pour Genève’s report Internet Governance in International Geneva, September 2020
The CyberPeace Institute is an independent, non-profit organization with the mission to enhance the stability of cyberspace. It does so by supporting vulnerable communities, analysing attacks collaboratively, and advancing responsible behaviour in cyberspace.
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