In recent months, countries have rushed to sign cybersecurity pacts that not only secure cyberspace allies, but also promote their vision of the global Internet.
The world is choosing sides in a fight over what the Internet will look like in the years to come.
“It’s kind of indicating how the battle lines are being drawn,” said Richard Stiennon, chief research analyst for security consulting firm IT-Harvest.
While a coalition of nations, including the US, is pushing to turn the internet into a borderless global entity, others such as Russia and China are pressing to give local governments more control over the flow of data.
How the competing visions play out is “a huge question,” Chris Finan, a former military intelligence officer and adviser to the Obama administration on cybersecurity policy. “We don’t know the answer to that yet.”
Over the past four weeks, the US has inked cyber deals with Japan, South Korea and the Gulf states.
Some were standalone cyber pacts, others part of broader security agreements. All pledged to share more data on hacking threats, exchange military cyber tactics and establish international cyberspace standards.
Meanwhile, in what some saw as a response to the spate of US deals, Russia and China unveiled their own wide-ranging cyber pact. The two - seen as the United States’ two main cyber adversaries - vowed not to hack each other and jointly work to repel technology that can “disturb public order” or “interfere with affairs of the state.”
The deals were received as “mainly symbolic,” said Steven Weber, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley School of Information and an expert on international politics and cybersecurity.
But the symbolic markers are an indication the internet is splintering.
“The internet is fragmenting and going more towards a future where it’s not one thing, it’s different everywhere,” said Stiennon.
And the fracture lines are being drawn, in part, on how countries view cybersecurity.
For China and Russia, “cybersecurity tends to be parlance for stability and controlling internal discussions and use of the Internet,” Finan said.
For the US and its allies in the cyber pacts, cybersecurity can also be viewed as means of promoting the free flow of encrypted data, uninhibited by government interference.
The differing opinions have been simmering for over a decade.
The 2001 Convention on Cybercrime resulted in a landmark treaty seeking to harmonise international cyber laws. Forty-five countries have now ratified the document. Notably, Russia and China have not.
“The Chinese and Russians are exerting their cyber sovereignty,” said Adam Segal, a Chinese cyber policy expert and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The two countries’ recent pact “is part of that trend,” he said.
Such is also the case for the White House’s series of cyber deals, which aim to set global standards.
“Any time you have a chance to go and work with a country to help shape the way they’re dealing with an issue like this you want to take it,” Finan said.
To some, the competing visions are simply the natural progression of cultural differences manifesting themselves in cyberspace.
“What you’re seeing is a refresh of existing alliance relationships to catch up with the new technology,” said Ian Wallace, co-director of New America Foundation’s Cybersecurity Initiative.
To others, the Russia-China deal is the harbinger of a disastrous change in the Internet.
Former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) called it a “huge, bad step for the Internet,” during remarks last week at the Hudson Institute, where he is a distinguished fellow.
“They’re creating this alternative out there, that they say is just an alternative, to what we would know as the Internet,” he said. “They’re going to go take it to developing countries.”
Several cyber experts were much more restrained.
“I have serious doubts about how they’re going to implement [the agreement],” Segal said. “The Chinese and Russians have a complicated relationship in that they're often happy to stand up to the US, but don’t necessarily trust each other that much.”
Still, that’s unlikely to stop a worldwide fracturing of the internet. It’s not just China and Russia who harbour varying views of how security measures should be used to regulate the internet.
“Across the board there is a greater degree of governments exerting sovereignty or rule-making powers over the internet,” Segal said. “That seems to be the future.”
* Cory Bennett writes for The Hill.com.