Vive la France – Cybersecurity and the Rule of Law

By Phil Reitinger

One of my favorite questions to ask people is, “Who is the first head of state to give a speech dedicated to cybersecurity?”  The most common answer I get is, by far, U.S. President Barack Obama.  There is good reason for that – the Cyberspace Policy Review launched by President Obama and shepherded by Melissa Hathaway at the very start of a U.S. Administration was a unique achievement, leading to the President’s remarks on May 29, 2009.

But that answer is wrong – wrong, by almost a decade.  The right answer, to the best of my knowledge, is French President Jacques René Chirac, who on May 16, 2000, gave a speech focused on cybersecurity and cybercrime at a G8 conference on “Safety and Confidence in Cyberspace.” For this edition of Cyber Throwback Thursday, I took a look again at these remarks, and I highly recommend them.

President’s Chirac’s comments are prescient and inspirational.  His speech is not about specific measures, although measures are there.  It is not about the threat, although he discusses it.  His remarks are about the rule of law – that all people and entities are accountable for obeying the same rules, fairly applied – and the need to preserve the rule of law on the Internet.

“Certains qualifient le ‘cyber-espace’ de nouveau monde, de monde virtuel, mais il ne faut pas s’y tromper. Il n’y a pas deux mondes différents par nature, le réel et le virtuel : il n’y a qu’un seul et même monde, dans lequel doivent s’appliquer et être respectées les mêmes valeurs : la liberté, l’égalité, la dignité de la personne humaine. Souhaiter que s’applique sur la Toile un état d’exception au nom du bel idéal de liberté qu’elle incarne reviendrait en réalité à y maintenir l’état sauvage, c’est-à-dire la loi du plus fort.” *

In summary, President Chirac says there are not really two different worlds, real and virtual, but only one world where the same values must be respected, including freedom and human dignity, rather than the law of the strongest.

And yet, the law of the strongest is what we often have.  The big and powerful can defend themselves online, at least most of the time, but breaches are the norm not the exception, and some of the most sensitive personal data imaginable (security clearance information including fingerprints) guarded by one of the most powerful and strong entities (the US Government) has been purloined.  As a result, companies spend billions of euros, dollars and pounds on technology and people to protect their information and services, in an arms race with increasingly capable criminal and seemingly state-sponsored actors.  We have rules and we have enforcement, but we do not have the rule of law, at least not to the extent we need it.  We have the militarization of the Internet, with safety and security a question of power rather than policy.

Five years ago, Jane Holl Lute and Bruce McConnell described our need more eloquently than I could.  “Conflict and exploitation are present [in cyberspace], to be sure, but cyberspace is fundamentally a civilian space – a neighborhood, a library, a marketplace, a school yard, a workshop – and a new, exciting age in human experience, exploration and development.” This statement describes both a reality and a goal, but the situation isn’t immutable.  We cannot continue to allow nearly every Internet story to be about the next effort to manipulate an election, the shutting down of a government or power grid, or the publication of cyber weapons.

Whether we live by rules fairly applied, or by the rule of the strongest, is within our control.  What we require is for more effort and resources be devoted to prevention, not offense.  We need governments to build international norms to cabin extra-legal action, and to build faster and broader international cooperation mechanisms to make civilian responses more effective.

Perhaps most importantly, we need global action.  That’s two words, “global” and “action,” each of which is important.  And that’s also not the normal state of affairs. Let’s do something. To borrow a phrase from President Chirac, “C’est pour nous tous une lourde responsabilité et une priorité.” **

A rough translation is: “Some say that cyber space is a new world, the virtual world, but don’t be mistaken. There are not two different worlds by nature, the real and the virtual. There is only one world in which one has to apply and respect the same values: liberty, equality, and human dignity. To hope/wish to apply an exception to the rule to the Internet/Web in the name of the beautiful ideal of freedom that it embodies would in reality maintain a wild state, that is to say, the law of the stronger.”

** Another rough translation is: “This is for us all a heavy responsibility and a priority.”


The author, Phil Reitinger, is the President and CEO of the Global Cyber Alliance

You can follow him on Twitter @CarpeDiemCyber.