Mending Fences Online: The United States, Germany, and the Need for a Common Cyber Agenda
Stating the obvious, namely defining the forthcoming U.S. election as historic, trailblazing, and of global relevance, still seems to understate the interest America’s allies have taken in the heated presidential campaign so far. Generally speaking this is by far neither a new phenomenon nor surprising as such. However, this election with its display of polarized positions, its divisive rhetoric and political visions has seen broad media coverage and has raised curiosity far beyond national borders. For audiences around the world, it has been reason for not only public concern, but also severe irritation, disgust, or even furtive amazement.
Most certainly the outcome less than a week from now will impact and shape the transatlantic, and in particular the German-American, relationship, at least for the next four years. Despite unquestionably pressing issues like the war in Syria, dealing with Russia, fighting ISIL and global terrorism, or organizing migration and refugee movements, there is an underlying, yet overarching, challenge affecting almost every part of our lives: to maintain the internet as a free, secure, and easily accessible space for everyone and to protect this vital and essential accomplishment against all odds.
The digital revolution, which began some fifteen years ago, has undeniably brought great benefits and created previously unthinkable opportunities for many, if not most, when it comes to communication, work facilitation, consumer transaction, and further economic advantages. Its impact on the ways we communicate (e.g., through social media), or, as a result, the acceleration of news cycles has been widely acknowledged as critical for political movements, most prominently in Iran or during the Arab Spring. However, many of us have witnessed the significant role of social media outreach in at least the last two U.S. elections, its downside becoming more imminent during the last couple of months. Not only did a (supposed) anonymity within “the internet” reinforce a more extreme, somewhat unfiltered expression of outrage and lack of common sense, the sheer amount of users flooding the comment sections also swamped most attempts to reasonably moderate. There has recently been broad discussion about the use of social bots—small software applications that create fake Twitter or Facebook accounts and that automatically react to buzzwords and often distort the nature of a thread—on various platforms as a means to manipulate the formation of opinion and as a tool to undercut the general confidence in the effectiveness of political discourse. Another severe conflict emerged digitally and is very likely to keep the White House and its partners busy far into the future: Like any other conventional infrastructure, the digital one is not impervious but rather susceptible to errors and hostile attacks. Companies as well as government institutions increasingly suffer from cyber attacks that not only hurt business, but also reveal the potential to critically undermine public trust in digital data protection. A rather seemingly dystopian model of nascent digital threats can be subsumed under “hybrid warfare,” which adds cyber as the fifth dimension of operation areas and therefore also includes defensive and offensive cyber capabilities.
Securing cyberspace logically cannot be approached on a national level, as this is one of the most global issues possible. However, the next president will definitely have to increase her or his nationally-targeted efforts to strengthen support for defensive measurements against cyber crime, be it performed privately or sponsored by a foreign government. As a preliminary step she or he must bring closer together representatives from government, military, and the private sector, as well as actors from academia and think tanks, in order to identify a working agenda before looking carefully for suitable international allies. Germany in particular should be high up on this list as it confronts very similar adversaries and struggles. For the United States and Germany this provides a unique chance to closely cooperate and move beyond the remaining obstacles regarding privacy laws—without brushing them aside. Jointly taking on the enormous task of pulling off a piece of international legislation, a cybersecurity treaty of some sort would therefore kill several birds with one stone. In addition to strengthening the transatlantic bonds, this could establish a new forum for international exchange, bringing together already existing expert groups and “Incident Response and Security Teams.” It could address the problem of authorship attribution, because it would allow for international policing criminals that conceal their nationality and whereabouts around the globe. A bilateral treaty assuming executive power would, of course, be open for other nations to join under certain conditions and could later turn into a global platform.
Defending the digital free world must be considered a highly prioritized joint responsibility, and both the United States and Germany qualify to bridge the Atlantic over this project of present and future generations.