Advice for how the government can confront the reality of a fragmented internet

Foreign actors in many sections of the internet actively seek to deny the United States and its allies free use of the internet, even to foster civil unrest and...

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WWW stands for World Wide Web. But the internet, as envisioned in the early 1990s, has devolved into fragments. Foreign actors in many sections of the internet actively seek to deny the United States and its allies free use of the internet, even to foster civil unrest and violence. My next guest says this reality ought to be more baked into U.S. foreign policy. He was part of a task force looking at this by the Council on Foreign Relations. Former CIA intelligence officer Guillermo Christensen, now with the law firm K& L Gates, joined the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Christensen, good to have you on.

Guillermo Christensen: My pleasure, please, it’s Guillermo, just Guillermo.

Tom Temin: Okay, we’ll take note of that. Tell us what the task force was looking at trying to, I guess gauge, and maybe shake the government into the reality of how the Internet actually has developed or devolved depending on your point of view.

Guillermo Christensen: Let me level set. So the Council on Foreign Relations is a think tank that has a very active studies program. It’s based in New York that has a very active Washington, DC program, and has a lot of members but also among many who are fellows who do studies there. I was actually one of the fellows years ago as the CIA fellow. And periodically, there’s an issue that the council believes needs to have a deeper dive. And that’s when they usually put together a task force, which goes off and does its own thing. So the views of the task force are the views of the members of the task force to the extent that they agreed on them. They’re not the views necessarily of the public council, or any government agency or anything like that. In this case, the question we were dealing with was, obviously,  the state of the internet writ large is a cause of concern. It has become the a battlefield for all kinds of combat. I was last night actually at a very interesting event with the Keemstar. This is one of the telecom providers in Ukraine. And we were talking about what they’ve endured, because of the internet, and also some of the success but the internet is a battlefield. So is our economy. So we’re in kind of this challenging moment where we are making incredible headway in a digital economy, just as your potential for that to be interdicted, is very high.

Tom Temin: And when the task force looked at the internet, just briefly describe for us what the internet is, in reality, not this world wide web, or it is worldwide, but it’s really balkanized. And tell us more about what it looks like in light of a study that you did.

Guillermo Christensen: Yeah, one of the things that we came to conclude very quickly is this idea that the global Internet is this free space for sharing views, sharing information, has largely passed us by because, in fact, this global internet era is over with, and that’s one of our first findings and recommendations is we all need to basically understand that that’s the case and for the U.S. government to change a lot of the policies that have been premised on that understanding. So if you go back 10-15 years, U.S. government’s views was that and it was an optimistic view. Unfortunately, the world didn’t  turn out that way that an open free global internet would bring great advances to everyone in lots of ways. The reality is the internet has become the opposite of that, in many respects. And I can touch on that a little bit more. But  one of the key findings is we need to recalibrate a lot of our policies as the U.S. government to accept this reality, however noxious it may be.

Tom Temin: Yes. And one characteristic of it that you pointed out is, say a nation like China, which clearly controls all of the information coming in and going out. And so in some ways, has shut itself off and has its own internet effectively. Nevertheless, it has the ability to reach out to the open internet, they’ve almost created one-way pathways, and that’s how they can launch some of the attacks and so on.

Guillermo Christensen: Absolutely. Whereas the Chinese have built their own, and you talked about the Chinese firewall, the Great Wall of China that has helped them to build an internet that is largely isolated and protected from the rest of the global Internet. Our system has not headed that way. We remain very open, very accessible to any other nation or anyone that wants to access our network of networks, which is what the internet effectively is. And that’s one of the main challenges. We kind of think about this. If you think of the global torch of freedom hanging from the lady liberty’s hands. It hasn’t really been that convincing an argument for many other countries. China, Russia, but there are many others.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Guillermo Christensen, a partner at the law firm K&L Gates and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations Task Force. Looking at the internet, and the task force came up with a long list of policy recommendations and better practices, many of which affect the federal government. Review it quickly for us. What should change now?

Guillermo Christensen: One of the things that we honed in on was that data has to be understood as a great source of geopolitical power and competition. And it’s central to economic security and national security. And one of the things that effectively has happened in the last five years or so, has been that the involvement of the United States and many trade negotiations and other ways in which we could build a consensus with like-minded countries, has declined rapidly. And so we call on that to be something that is addressed and pursued more strongly. The reality is we’re not talking here about some people say, a democracy, or those countries that are democratic and on the internet, a lot of times we have, we have very strong shared interest or countries that might not fall in that category, but do favor a digital economy that’s relatively unfettered. And so there is I think there’s a strong argument here that we make, that our coalitions should be structured differently than people have traditionally thought of, in this context.

Tom Temin: And we’ve talked about Russia and China, primarily North Korea, you point out as also a pretty bad actor with respect to the internet. What about the, and of course France, Great Britain and Germany, that’s a whole other class. Those are the people we can trust and deal with. But what about marginal places like Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, I know maybe, to some extent, Singapore, nations like that, that are peripheral to some of the bad actors, and whose forms of government are not really all that like our own. What about those nations? Can they be maybe brought into the correct sphere?

Guillermo Christensen:  That’s exactly the kind of examples that I would look at. South America, Brazil, for example, you know, one of the richest, and frankly, most fascinating digital economies out there. Those are the countries that we should be striving to build a consensus around what a digital economy and a global internet post, this version that we’re dealing with right now looks like because we have a lot of shared interest with them. Those are countries where if, for example, you have criminal hackers, you can go and find them and extradite them, they will cooperate with us, unlike, say, Russia or China. So there’s a very basic difference of understanding there that is key to building that kind of consensus.

Tom Temin: What else? Tell us some more recommendations because that was a pretty long list.

Guillermo Christensen: It is, and the other area that I think are really important, this is one that I am a strong proponent for is we need to think of cybercrime more as a national security risk, and this one is definitely one that gets some controversy. What we mean by that is not that we should start using military force in order to deal with cyber crime. On the contrary, we need to understand that cyber crime right now is having a very serious impact across our economy. We’re seeing with ransomware, which I’m sure you’ve discussed on the show, we’re seeing ransomware hitting hospitals, critical infrastructure, but we’re also seeing a lot of money that’s being siphoned out of our economy, through cyber crime. And the tools to fight it sometimes tend to bleed over into more of the national security area, because the bad guys are hiding often in countries that are adverse to us, like Russia, and like China. And so we need to become,  I think, we need to treat it more like a national security risk, and consider ways in which we can employ a more concerted strategy on that side.

Tom Temin: And just a final question on the military side of this, of course, there is a cyber command. And the information domain is considered by the military now per its doctrine, a zone of operation, just like the air, sea and space and so on. Do you think that the doctrine and the practice of the U.S. military is strong enough or robust enough to meet the challenges as you’ve laid out?

Guillermo Christensen:  So I think that  we have gotten much better on what I would call the doctrine, trying to understand how to employ the fifth domain, the capabilities on the cyberspace. The challenge is that we still lack an overall national view. And this is shared with other countries, of where this plays when you have a conflict and the question of, can you deter, for example, and we cover this in detail in the report. But can you deter attacks by the use of cyber forces and cyber capabilities, and that’s a very iffy proposition at this point in time. We do think as part of our recommendations that we need to have, again, more coalition-building, more norms. And one of the things we point out that I think is very clear is when we talk about norms, things that you would or would not do, for example, targeting election systems. Those tend to work better with our friends than with our adversaries. But that’s fine. We start with our friends, we come around a consensus, no one is going to interfere with election systems. That should be almost a basic understanding of what I’ll call civilized countries. And you can build from that. Can I make one more point?

Tom Temin: Sure.

Guillermo Christensen: One of the other issues we touch on is one of the biggest divisions between the United States and the European Union has been around data privacy and data protection. I am very hopeful, and we touch on this, that we can come to a better understanding, especially in light of the risks and threats from Russia and China to our common economies. We need to find a way to deal with the controversies that still are out there over Snowden, etc., but build a transatlantic data consensus. It’s incredibly important. So that’s another one of our main recommendations.

Tom Temin: Guillermo Christensen is a partner at the law firm K&L Gates, member of the Council on Foreign Relations Task Force.


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