Are we in a Digital Cold War?

Note: the paper posted here was initially presented at the GigaNet workshop The Global Governance of the Internet: Intergovernmentalism, Multistakeholderism and Networks, Graduate Institute, Geneva, Switzerland, May 17, 2013.

I first heard the Cyber Cold War concept applied to the Internet in the aftermath of the Dubai World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). There, the world’s nations seemed to split in half over the future of Internet governance. One writer called it the “Internet’s Yalta” (Klimburg 2013). The concept gained momentum with the February 2013 release of a report attributing systematic cyber-espionage to a unit of the Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army (Mandiant 2013). Suddenly we had U.S. cybersecurity firms with direct ties to the American military openly talking about a long term, systematic threat from a foreign power in terms reminiscent of 1960s-era warnings of the communist plan for world domination. Reporters and media outlets echoed the theme. A former CIA head actually compared the use of Stuxnet to Hiroshima.

My initial reaction to this metaphor was viscerally negative. The very act of framing the problem in that way, I thought, contributed to the militarization of the Internet and foreshadowed a bleak future: an Internet policy landscape dominated by national security concerns and great power conflict. But I could not help but start thinking about the parallel. What, exactly, was wrong with characterizing conflicts over cyber space as a Cold War? What, exactly, are the policy implications if we continue to do so? In order to answer those questions one must explore the metaphor, not reject it out of hand.

This led to a change of heart. While I continue to reject the values and policy predilections of the new cold warriors, there is in fact a growing linkage between cyber policies and national security. It is also true that policy conflicts between Internet freedom advocates and advocates of state-centric regulation have enmeshed cyberspace in inter-state conflict. Moreover, on both sides there are interest groups and ideologues who wish to actively promote the equivalent of a digital cold war, which could make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those problems will not go away if we refuse to acknowledge or discuss the Cyber Cold War concept. Indeed, ignoring or dismissing the parallel is probably as dangerous as an uncritical acceptance of it.

The best response to the challenge would be a historically informed review of the nature of the Cold War, coupled with a dispassionate analysis of its similarities and differences to the current cyber situation. What can we learn from this comparison?

To coninue reading, download the full paper.


  1. Teona

    It’s really scary to hear about a “cyber cold war”. Why split our cyber world in two, why have an “iron curtain” on the Internet? Nevertheless, there are facts that can lead to this interpretation…
    But still, I believe that “cold war” it’s a very hard expression…

  2. Ella

    I believe that using “cold war” expression is a little bit harsh. But, certainly, there are conflicts on the Internet. Starting from the fact that Internet is a global network, it is impossible not to have differences in his use. But it is important to use it wisely, without bad purposes, it’s a think that we all could benefit from.