Allegations the Russian government hacked the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), and the Hillary Clinton campaign have generated intense attention, especially concerning the implications of possible Russian efforts to use the fruits of cyber espionage to influence the U.S. election. Although Russia rejects the allegations, these hacks might constitute payback for Clinton and Democrats, who championed direct U.S. cyber support for opponents of authoritarian regimes during the Obama administration. China and Russia have long complained the United States manipulates cyberspace to interfere in their domestic political affairs, and, under this perspective, airing the DNC’s digital dirty laundry through Wikileaks courtesy of Russian intelligence perhaps means turnabout is fair play.
One of Clinton’s most well known speeches as Secretary of State was her remarks on internet freedom in January 2010. In this speech, Clinton described how cyberspace supported the “four freedoms” articulated by President Roosevelt in 1941. But she also asserted the emergence of a fifth freedom: “the freedom to connect—the idea that governments should not prevent people from connecting to the internet, to websites, or to each other.” Clinton placed the freedom to connect at the heart of the Obama administration’s conception of internet freedom.
In policy terms, Clinton explained, the freedom to connect animated the administration’s efforts “to help individuals silenced by oppressive governments” in over forty countries, provide “new tools that enable citizens to exercise their rights of free expression by circumventing politically motivated censorship,” fund and train local political groups to use the internet effectively and safely, and making it clear to “nations that censor the internet . . . that our government is committed to helping promote internet freedom.” Clinton argued the internet provided the means for digital samizdat to overcome the “new information curtain . . . descending across much of the world” in the same way clandestine leaflets during the Cold War contributed to the fall of the Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain.
For China, Russia, and other authoritarian governments, this rhetoric and agenda constituted a U.S. strategy to intervene in their domestic politics through cyber means. Such governments doubled down domestically and internationally on “internet sovereignty,” which has included efforts to increase government control over the internet and over the activities of foreign-supported organizations in cyberspace. As a result, the “internet freedom” versus “internet sovereignty” conflict has become ubiquitous in international cyber politics.
The exquisitely timed release of DNC emails by Wikileaks, and the promise by Julian Assange of more DNC disclosures to come, has possibly added a new twist to this overarching conflict. Whether or not Russia is behind the leaks, it is not hard to imagine amusement in the Kremlin over U.S. politicians, especially Hillary Clinton, fretting over a foreign government’s exploitation of cyberspace to influence domestic politics in another country. Isn’t that what Clinton claimed the United States had a right to do in her speech on internet freedom, and what the Democrat-led Obama administration pursued? Is the DNC leak, and the hacking of the DCCC and the Clinton campaign, perhaps a message that other governments can also engage in cyber intervention into the domestic politics of foreign countries? And a message particularly for Clinton, the champion of US cyber meddling in the domestic politics of other nations?
Clinton and others associated with the internet freedom agenda would reject any equivalence between U.S. support to help political dissidents circumvent internet censorship and protect their communications from the surveillance of oppressive regimes and efforts by foreign governments to intervene in American democratic politics. But, the internet sovereignty position rejects American perspectives on the relationship between cyberspace, human rights, and the principle of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other countries. The legal and ideological differences among countries concerning cyberspace expand incentives for adversary states to exercise material power to shape the geopolitical agenda.
These speculations, like others offered by experts, frame these hacks and the release of DNC emails in ways that reinforce the increasing political dangers countries face and the lack of global norms regulating cyberspace. The escalating risks and paucity of agreed norms helps explain the growing prominence of coercion, retaliation, and deterrence in cybersecurity policies. Frequent calls for retaliation against Russia, if Russian involvement in the DNC leaks is sufficiently established, highlight these rising dangers, the entrenched disagreements about appropriate state behavior in cyberspace, and the growing desire to address cybersecurity threats through power politics.