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Mueller: There is no digital Cold War

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There is no digital Cold War even though there is conflict over Internet governance between those who favor sovereign control and those who favor transnational civil society organizations, says Milton Mueller, an Internet governance academic at Syracuse University.

In a new paper (.pdf), Mueller says those drawing on the Cold War analogy to explain the outcome of the World Conference on International Telecommunications 2012 – which ended with a rough split between developed countries on one side and authoritarian and developing countries on another – overlook basic characteristics of the Cold War.

Unlike then, competition now doesn't revolve around two great powers who seek to draw adherents into mutually exclusive systems. For one thing, nation-state government attempts to position themselves as a supporter of multi-stakeholder governance "are inherently hypocritical," says Mueller.

Their support for organic governance institutions such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers is "opportunistic, inconsistent and partial," he writes, adding that official U.S. support for ICANN "is entirely a function of the fact that ICANN is tethered to the United States and provides privileges forms of influence."

A true Internet Cold War would require two sides coalescing around alternate data communication protocols, Mueller adds. Countries have firewalled and filtered their Internet networks, Mueller acknowledges, but there is "no alternate DNS root, no different Internet address registry system."

"One can hardly overemphasize this aspect of the distinction between the historical epochs. During the Cold War, taking one side literally meant severing diplomatic, economic, technological and social links with the other side," he notes.

When it comes to comparisons of cyber weapons to nuclear weapons – that latter being the key technology that kept the Cold War mostly cold or limited to regional proxy fights – Mueller also says hyperbolism has led to comparisons of the former to the latter, but wrongly so.

The closest thing to a cyber weapon in known existence is Stuxnet, "which despite its incredible sophistication as a cyber-exploit, was nothing more than an act of sabotage against a few highly specialized pieces of machinery." Cyber attacks are not a revolutionary change capable of altering a strategic balance.

"Cyber simply does not transform war the way nukes did. It does transform other kinds of power relations, however – and that is the point. We are dealing with something fundamentally different," he writes.

All that said, Mueller does warn that although the Cold War and the present are structurally different, cybersecurity threat mongering could revive some of the domestically undesirable consequences of the Cold War. Like anti-communist mongering, cybersecurity mongering leads to the concentration and centralization of power. It "militates against the Internet freedom agenda of the liberal democratic states."

It fuels government surveillance and "prioritizes national security over individual rights and human security," Mueller warns.

For more:
- download the paper "Are we in a Digital Cold War?" (.pdf)

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