Openness is key to the world's cyber woes
Pioneer ... Vint Cerf of Google. Photo: AFP
The International Telecommunication Union arm of the United Nations professes to be ''committed to connecting all the world's people,'' yet it has just completed 10 days of largely closed-door meetings in Dubai, where the agenda seemed more aimed at controlling global communications.
In opening remarks to the conference, the ITU secretary-general, Hamadan Toure, emphasised cyber security should come first and, implicitly, it should come under his purview.
For all the commitments to openness, the conference is about the national security interests of states.
Toure would like to see some form of UN control of internet domain names and numbers, which are now administered by the non-profit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. But this would hardly improve security by itself. There is a kind of naive faith that if nation-states exert greater control over cyberspace, security will improve. China, Russia, and a host of other nations - most of them authoritarian - love the idea of more control as this would enable more censorship and would erode individual privacy. Sadly, many liberal democratic states, out of a mix of economic and security concerns, go along.
Among the matters feared to be under discussion is the imposition of cyber tolls - charges to allow entry into a country's cybersphere, or ''virtual territory''. Another effort lies in fighting paedophiles and curtailing the worst sorts of pornography - a noble undertaking but some worry that authoritarians might aim to further undermine freedom of speech, privacy and civil liberties, all in the name of this good cause.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of increasing national control of cyberspace is the idea that anonymity should be banned. There are logical reasons to think about this: making life harder for terrorists, tracking criminals, and deterring social predators. But such people have sufficient expertise to evade such a ban, while the rest of us will have lost our privacy. The fact that ''deep packet'' inspection - giving nations the right and power to read encrypted cybertraffic - is on the table for discussion is troubling too.
Several protests have arisen at the Dubai meeting. One of the most articulate is that of Vint Cerf of Google, an internet pioneer. His view is that voices other than those of nation states need to be heard, and the lack of government controls and the openness of the internet create value and drives the information age forward.
Protest has also taken the form of insurgency. It seems the hacktivist organisation Anonymous may be involved in disruptive cyber acts that have slowed - or stopped - the conference's official website.
There is deep irony in the desire of nations to seek more control over cyberspace. Dictators have abused their ability to restrict access to chill dissent. Hosni Mubarak shut the internet in just such an attempt. But he failed because the Egyptian masses had been using cyberspace to share their anger and gather their courage for many months before the regime struck at the net. Bashar al-Assad seems to have tried something similar recently when the internet went down briefly in Syria. He too will fail.
In the end, UN efforts to control cyberspace will fail as well. The virtual world is a vast wilderness - and growing in ways that almost surely lie beyond the ability of governments to control. The sooner this is realised, the better. It will save the world from a costly global struggle between baulky nations and nimble insurgent networks.
Almost all IT is dual use. Any laptop can be used to wage cyberwar. But it is possible to craft agreements not to use such weaponry first, not to use it against civilian infrastructure or in acts of ''cybotage'' as in the case of the Stuxnet worm attack on Iran. Many of the nations that have signed the chemical and biological weapons conventions can still make these terrible weapons but promise not to do so.
If the UN wants a role, it should seek a similar behavioural approach to arms control in cyberspace. Russia first proposed something like this at the UN in the 1990s. The US opposed it. Now the Russians are among the best cyberwarriors in the world and US cybersecurity is in a parlous state.
What is to be done? Let me make a modest suggestion to Toure: allow a global discourse to begin, one in which nations and networks together will find the right way ahead. If you are for openness, then be open.
John Arquilla is professor of defence analysis at the US Naval Postgraduate School and author of Worst Enemy: The Reluctant Transformation of the American Military.
WASHINGTON POST BLOOMBERG