STEVE INSKEEP, host:
We're talking this week about some of the questions raised by the prospect of cyberwar, computers fighting computers. It turns out the questions are very similar in some ways to the questions raised by conventional war. What's fair, what's not, what is legal under the laws of war, what is a war crime? NPR's Tom Gjelten is our guide through this subject and joins us once again. Tom, good morning.
TOM GJELTEN: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: Now, you suggested yesterday that the United States wants to find some way to apply the laws of war to cyberspace. There's also a question we're going to consider this morning, which is, I guess, disarmament. The U.S. tries to get countries to give up nuclear weapons. They also want to try to get countries to give up their hackers and evil computer programs?
GJELTEN: Well, actually, Steve, there's a little bit of a paradox here. You're right, the U.S. government is essentially in favor of applying the law of war to a cyber conflict. But it has long been opposed to the idea of cyber arms control.
GJELTEN: A big reason is because of the way cyber disarmament has been framed. Governments have very different ideas of what a cyber weapon is and therefore they have different ideas of what disarmament should involve. We can begin with what's happening at the International Telecommunications Union. It's actually a United Nations agency, probably best known these days for its supervision of international telephone calls - you know, it's the ITU that came up with country codes.
GJELTEN: But in a meeting last fall, the ITU secretary general, Hamadoun Toure, let it be known he wanted his organization to take on a new problem: cyberwar.
Mr. HAMADOUN TOURE (ITU Secretary General): As you well know, the next world war could happen in the cyberspace, and that would be a catastrophe.
GJELTEN: Actually, we don't know for sure what a cyberwar would be like, because we've never really had one. But Mr. Toure thinks the ITU could keep one from happening.
Mr. TOURE: We need to make sure that by the end of next year we broker a global agreement in which every country commits itself not to attack another country first.
GJELTEN: The International Telecommunications Union as the broker of a worldwide cyber peace agreement.
GJELTEN: It may sounds like another wacky U.N. idea, but there's more to it, Steve. Behind this notion of a cyber peace negotiation is a high-stakes battle over no less than the future of the Internet itself, because the countries most eager to see a cyber peace treaty have their own idea of what cyberwar might mean.
INSKEEP: Well, let me make sure I understand that, Tom Gjelten, because it seems pretty straightforward. If you talk about cyberwar, you can talk about hacking, destroying computer systems remotely, knocking down power grids and so forth. What other definition of cyberwar is there?
GJELTEN: Well, let's go back to 1998. At the U.N that year, Russia proposed a global disarmament agreement applying to cyberspace. But the Russians were not focused on stopping sneak attacks on computer networks. They were talking about the need for information security. They worried the Internet was making it so easy for people to communicate that a government could use the Internet to start a battle of ideas and challenge another country's political system. The Russians actually revived an old Soviet term - ideological aggression.
At a U.N. conference in 2008, Sergei Korotkov of the Russian Defense Ministry argued that any time a government promotes ideas on the Internet with the goal of subverting another country's government - even in the name of democracy - it should qualify as aggression. That would make it illegal under the U.N. charter. He spoke through an interpreter.
Mr. SERGEI KOROTKOV (Russian Defense Ministry): (Through translator) Practically any information operation conducted by a state or a number of states against another state would be qualified as an interference into internal affairs. So any good cause like promotion of democracy cannot be used as a justification for such actions.
GJELTEN: And this is what the Russians would like to see in a cyber arms control agreement: limits on what ideas governments allow on the Internet. And they're not alone. James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies has served as a consultant to the U.N. Disarmament Institute. In his work there he has seen firsthand how many governments share the Russian view.
Mr. JAMES LEWIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies): The thing that really unites them is their desire to control information, to control content. And so they see information as a weapon. An official from one of those countries told me, Twitter is an American plot to destabilize foreign governments. That's what they think. And so they're asking, how do we get laws that control the information weapon?
GJELTEN: The Russians have introduced their cyber disarmament proposal at the U.N. each year since 1998. Last year they got an even sharper version approved by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which includes China and four Central Asian countries as well as Russia. The accord defined information war in part as an effort by a state to undermine another's political, economic, and social systems. It actually used the term mass psychological brainwashing.
INSKEEP: So what we might think of a battle of ideas, they're arguing is something insidious, evil, warlike.
GJELTEN: Right, and U.S. diplomats think the Russians see that Shanghai accord that they negotiated last year as a blueprint for exactly the kind of cyber arms control agreement they would want from the U.N. But getting information controls on the Internet would first require changes in the way the Internet is governed. Right now nobody really governs it.
And this is what brings us back to the International Telecommunications Union and the notion that it could broker a cyber peace treaty. There's now a push within the ITU membership, supported by the leadership, to give developing countries a bigger voice in decisions about how the Internet works - partly in the name of cyber peace. James Lewis says some powerful countries would support such a move. They are ready to put the Internet under more government control.
Mr. LEWIS: India feels this way. Brazil feels this way. China feels this way. They want a bigger role for government.
GJELTEN: The changing international lineup on this issue of Internet governance is in keeping with other geopolitical trends, says Harvard law professor Jack Goldsmith. Just as the global economy is being redefined by the emerging economic powers, so now is the Internet.
Professor JACK GOLDSMITH (Harvard Law School): How could it be any other way? This is a hugely important, consequential political, social, and economic tool, and powerful nations are going to try to wield it and shape it to reflect their interests. The network will increasingly, I fear, look like what they want it to look like.
GJELTEN: The United States, Steve, is actually trying to work with Russia and other countries to establish some norms of appropriate government behavior in cyberspace, no controls on information. But, Steve, the bottom line here is, there is a growing feeling that the United States, having invented the Internet, has been able to use it as a weapon against its adversaries, and the next time you hear about the need for cyber arms control, be aware, there's another story behind it.
INSKEEP: Meaning that the different ideas of what arms control means in cyberspace is going to complicate any effort to do anything about it.
GJELTEN: Yes, because we think of cyberwar as attacking computer networks. Many other countries see it entirely in political terms.
INSKEEP: Which is how Iran, for example, would see this, I suppose.
GJELTEN: To the government of Iran, cyberwar means giving dissidents the power to communicate via Twitter. And Steve, with all these differences in views of what cyber conflict involves, you can be sure it will take a while to work out any new rules that would apply in this domain.
INSKEEP: Tom, always a pleasure to see you.
GJELTEN: Good to see you, Steve.
INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Gjelten.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.