Alex Grigsby is the assistant director for the Digital and Cyberspace Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
India and Brazil see themselves as power brokers in international cyber diplomacy. For years, the United States has courted both countries to promote its preferred norms for cyberspace, hoping that Brazil and India will bandwagon in support of the U.S. vision of an open, global, free and resilient cyberspace. Russia and China have been doing the same, hoping they can elicit Delhi’s and Brasilia’s support for greater UN control of the Internet and cyber issues writ large. Recognizing this, India and Brazil try to play a bridge-building role between the United States on one side and Russia and China on the other, hoping that they can moderate Moscow and Beijing all while reaping the influence-enhancing benefits that come with being honest brokers. But is this approach effective?
Indian cyber experts Samir Saran and Arun Mohan Sukumar at the Observer Research Foundation seem to think so. Last week, the Indian, Russian, and Chinese foreign ministers issued a communiqué at the end of their annual meeting. It dedicates a section to cyber issues, outlining the foreign ministers’ views with respect to the applicability of international law to cyberspace, the use of the Internet for terrorist recruitment, and reducing the risk of conflict. It also includes a reference to multistakeholder Internet governance, which is unusual as Russia and China only tend to agree to such references in documents they negotiate with United States et al., not statements among BRICS partners. Saran and Sukumar argue that its inclusion is a testament to Indian diplomacy’s ability to inject western concepts such as multistakeholder Internet governance into a communiqué that Russia and China will support. They see India playing a strategic bridge-building role between the West and Russia and China on cyber issues, possibly reducing the animosity and mistrust between both camps.
This line of thinking also applies to Brazil, and Brazilian officials do their best to ensure that they act as a moderator between both camps. At the acrimonious 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications treaty conference, Brazilian officials chaired the cybersecurity working group that aimed to reconcile the position of the United States, which didn’t want a security reference in the final treaty, and Russia and China, which did. In 2014-15, Brazil chaired the United Nations Group of Governmental Experts and tried to reconcile the gap between both camps’ views on appropriate cyber norms. The same happens at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers and the United Nations General Assembly, where Brazil consistently argues that multilateral and multistakeholder approaches to Internet governance are not mutually exclusive, and can coexist.
There are two significant problems with India’s and Brazil’s approaches. First, China and Russia are unlikely to ever moderate their position on certain cyber issues. Russia has long advocated that the Internet should be managed by the United Nations system and that the free flow of data can pose a threat to its information space. China sees the Great Firewall as paramount to regime stability and is even willing to export its net of censorship via its Great Cannon. Both wholeheartedly reject the U.S. approach to Internet governance, so there’s no way that India or Brazil can facilitate a rapprochement. Don Quixote has a better shot at defeating a windmill.
Second, by attempting to moderate the Russian and Chinese positions, India or Brazil risk lending legitimacy to them. A statement that supports a multilateral role for the management of the Internet, even if watered-down thanks to Indian or Brazilian intervention, is still antithetical to supporting an open and global Internet. According to the Russia-China-India foreign ministers communiqué, ministers
emphasized the need to ensure Internet governance based on multilateralism, democracy, transparency with multi-stakeholders in their respective roles and responsibilities. They noted the need to internationalize Internet governance and to enhance in this regard the role of International Telecommunication Union.
A statement like that eventually leads the United States, European countries, Australia, Canada and others to constantly question where India really stands. Last year, Indian Communications and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad expressed India’s support for the multistakeholder model. With the latest communiqué, western policymakers could easily interpret it as a reversal of India’s position, despite the awkward reference to "multi-stakeholders." Clunky attempts at moderation seem to dilute the India’s position while confusing everyone else. Brazil has done similar things in the past by endorsing BRICS foreign ministers statements with similar language.
All of this isn’t to say that India and Brazil should not play a bridge-building role in the international cyber debate. They absolutely should. Policymakers in Delhi and Brazil should identify issue areas where their contributions can make the biggest impact. Internet governance is probably not a good choice given the polarizing nature of the discussion. Cyber norms offer more promise, as positions aren’t nearly as entrenched. Furthermore, there’s room for negotiation as all countries have an interest in avoiding escalatory state-sponsored cyber activity that leads to conflict. It may be time for the foreign ministries in Delhi and Brasilia to reassess their efforts.