von Ben Kamis
Last summer my esteemed and illustrious colleague Thorsten Thiel and I were talking about possible future projects. Thorsten is an expert on democratic theory and the politics of the internet, and I know a thing or two about international law and international security. In the course of the conversation, I asked the good doctor what I thought was an obvious question:
Even the post-modern wars, like the Global War on Terror and the War on Drugs are fought with the typical means of violence as a deterrent, right? I mean, states go around chasing terrorists and drug lords with implements of pain and destruction, hoping that, if their targets are not killed in the process, they will at least be scared enough to seek another line of business. So what’s with all this talk about ‚cyberwar‘? The Internet is just a network of ways to send weak electromagnetic pulses in certain patterns. Violence over the Internet is impossible in principle, so what does ‚cyberwar‘ really mean, and why do people keep using such a peculiar word?
Thorsten didn’t have a good answer, and neither did I. Kids, listen: if even the experts don’t have a good answer to your question, then it’s what the professionals call a research question. Since this question required research, and research on tough questions is how all the fellows and chairs and doctors and professors at universities justify their burden to society, we set to work.
Before I say anything about where we looked and what we found, let me disclaim grandiose statements based on this preliminary research. Before applying for lots of tax money and resources to answer the question, we wanted to conduct a ‚plausibility probe‘, which is a kind of mini-study to find out whether the researchers‘ initial intuitions are worth pursuing and if they can even get their hands on the right data. So what I’m reporting here are plausible, but not solid, peer-reviewed, ’scientific‘ results. So far, we’ve only presented our results at the 1st Annual HIIG Colloquium (Kareful – ze Link ist in Dscherman), where they were well-received. Use them at your own risk.
So in what sense are states Battletrolls? Well, high-priced scientists like us cannot simply answer any question as posed. No, we need a theory to put our results in the context of other things we think we know about the world. This makes different bits of knowledge fit together better, and it lets us use fancy words, like ‚contingent generalization‘. So the first step was to compose a theory that would explain why states would act like Battletrolls in the first place and give us an excuse to look.
Our theory starts by looking at the Internet. In the olden days, when Yahoo! was a dynamic start-up, Nirvana was a little band in Seattle waiting for a break, and home supercomputers with 10 MB hard drives were something for celebrities and tycoons, the Internet existed, but it was something for basement-dwelling aficionados. Many people had heard of the network the Pentagon had built that connected their hospital to the local university, for example, but only geeks and technicians had anything to do with it. These geeks came up with ideas about how this technology would change society, though, and the main idea was that the Internet would connect everybody to everybody else, allowing everyone to participate directly and equally in collective decision making. You wouldn’t have to vote for people anymore, because you would be able to discuss and vote on topics of public concern with everybody directly. These geeks realized that this would be a threat to traditional governments, and they even composed ‚A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace‚, basically telling governments „Shove off, old timer!“.
Even though states had built the physical infrastructure of the Internet, they were starting to look like horseshoes on a sports car. For centuries, about 5 to be exact, states had been the main political units on the planet. They were organized hierarchically around some kind of central authority, they extracted resources from their populations (i.e. they forced people to pay taxes), and they justified all this by arguing that people needed them for protection and coordination. Nobody else is going to make sure that everyone has clean water or safe roads, and if the neighbours ever invade, you’ll need an army to push them back.
So the idea is that states are just doing what they know. They claim to exist to protect you against violence (and to threaten others with violence on your behalf, if need be), and since the violence doesn’t really apply to the Internet, states have to put it there. But since they can’t export violence onto the Interwebz directly, it being a series of cables, satellites and microwave transmitters, why not do it with metaphor? Cyberwar isn’t war, but if you can make it seem enough like war for the comparison to seem sensible, you can continue extracting resources and ‚coordinating‘ people. The first step is to convince people that there’s a real threat on the Internet that is so dire, they will be overwhelmed alone and need the state’s help. ‚Cyberwar‘ might just be that kind of threat (and the latest James Bond testifies to this theory – without James Bond & Star Wars, there would be no social science).
Sounds like a workable theory, so now comes the time to go out and observe things. To make sure that we weren’t just full of paranoid delusions and any further research would have a decent chance of producing interesting results, we picked ‚hard cases‘, reasoning that if our theory worked where you would least expect it, it should work everywhere. To find cases where our Battletroll theory would be least likely to work, we took the top 5 countries from Freedom House’s ‚Freedom of the Net‚ index: 1. Estonia; 2. USA; 3. Germany; 4. Australia; 5. Hungary. And to make sure these weren’t Internet-friendly countries with obscenely-sized militaries, we also checked how much they spend on defence per person. Although the USA is near the top of the list, Estonia and Australia were roughly in the middle, and Germany and Hungary are pussycats in terms of military expenditure. From a population of around 200 countries, we had found a sample of 5 hard cases, and it was time to collect data.
The data we collected was in the form of official cyber security policies and statements, which is a logical place to look if you think that relatively peaceful and net-friendly countries will use violent metaphors for the Internet. Given that we had chosen hard cases, the results were fairly surprising, except for Estonia. Even though Estonia hosts NATO’s cyber security headquarters and was subject to massive DDOS attacks from a large neighbouring country who shall remain nameless (but we all know it was Ru55!a) Estonia was the most benign of the Trolls. Its official documents depicted cybercrime as a civil matter for the police, and ‚cyberattacks‘ were only mentioned twice. For a sample of the documents we analysed in Estonia’s case, see here and here.
Second in order of non-trollery was Australia. Even Australia’s cyber security intelligence bureau provided tips on how to secure home and business systems without militarist rhetoric or metaphors. See here for an example. An important white paper that was supposed to provide more details about Australia’s cyber security policies has been delayed for 18 months, and the final verdict depends on its content, but Australia is prima facie a net-friendly Untroll.
In the middle of the pack was Hungary. Hungary doesn’t publish much about official policy, at least not in a language Thorsten or I can understand. Instead, they publish more speeches and sound bites by officials. When they do refer to an existing policy, it usually consists of simply linking to a NATO policy paper, and they seem to outsource most of their thinking about cyber security to NATO. The 2012 National Security Strategy did, however, casually relate cyber security to terrorism, crime, national defense and disaster prevention without clarifying this bewildering and diverse set of issues. Although Hungary’s Internet policies are relatively free, according to Freedom House, they do present the Internet as quite the threat. Hollow rhetoric to inflame and aggravate the discussion is the essence of trolling.
Second place in the preliminary Battletroll ranking goes to the United States. Taking a look at the Cyberspace Policy Review and the „International“ Strategy for Cyberspace, we find some heavy trolling. The most troubling example of which is from the latter document, stating „the United States will respond to hostile acts in cyberspace as we would to any other threat to our country. … We reserve the right to use all necessary means – diplomatic, informational, military, and economic – as appropriate and consistent with applicable international law, in order to defend our Nation, our allies, our partners, and our interests.“ Think about this for a second. First, the escalation is built in. You mess with their immaterial data, and they’re threatening to visit you with invasion, cruise missiles, drones, or whatever other military means they happen to fancy. Scary. Second, they dare to invoke international law. Don’t get me wrong. I have plenty to criticize when it comes to the utility and coherence of international law, but if anything, international law here is a constraint. International law sets a pretty high bar on legitimate uses of force, but the American policy seems to think that whatever their policy happens to be is sanctioned by international law because they put ‚international‘ in the policy’s title. International law is a mess, but it’s not that silly.
But who is the acting King of the Battletrolls? Astonishingly, it’s Germany. I say ‚astonishingly‘ because Germans really agonize about their military. There is some kind of documentary about the Nazis running on some cable TV channel almost 24 hours a day, and whenever a fairly benign foreign policy action requires any military contingent, like patrolling the seas of East Africa for pirates or off the coast of Lebanon for weapons shipments, there is still a protracted public discourse of soul searching and existential angst. And whenever you see kids playing cops and robbers with toy guns, or even imaginary finger guns, all the parents sneer and harrumph away. What did Germany do to earn the crown? Well, it was the only country to invoke the term ‚cyberwar‘ explicitly in any official document, and it used ‚attack‘ more frequently than anybody else. Startlingly, Germany even used the term ‚Cyber Warfare‘ in German language documents. Imagine you saw a term like ‚Blitzkrieg‘ in the American or Australian defence policy papers. Even if you knew they were using it rhetorically, what a choice of words!? And from the gun-shy Germans, of all people?! There’s an old saw in communications studies that electronic communication reduces inhibitions, lowering barriers of formality and making rudeness socially easier and less punishable. You would almost suspect something similar is going on in the German government with regard to cyber security. Normally übercautious, the Internet seems to bring out the Germans‘ inner Battletroll.