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How Snowden's Revelations Are Helping Russia

With the United States no longer able to impose its position on Internet security and governance in the wake of the NSA spying scandal, Moscow is stepping into the void.

Snowden last month in Moscow
Snowden last month in Moscow
Elena Chernenko

Until now, the biggest winner after Edward Snowden’s revelations appears to have been China. The discovery of secret documents revealing that the United States spied on Internet users around the world has given Beijing a powerful argument against the US charges that it is hacking in to US computer networks.

But there are also signs that Russia is benefitting from Snowden’s revelations. The most concrete example was the United Nations General Assembly's approval last week of Moscow’s resolution regarding international norms on information security.

The non-binding resolution includes a number of principles that are important to Russia. First is the use of the term “information security” in a very broad sense, which Russia had supported in opposition to the much narrower US understanding of “cybersecurity.” It is more than a difference in terminology: the different expressions reflect fundamentally opposing approaches to the security problems arising from the Internet. The US is primarily worried about physical threats to the network (like viruses), while Russia is primarily worried about potentially dangerous content (that would destabilize the political situation).

Secondly, the document calls for the development of international norms and rules for the behavior of governments in the sphere of information technology. Russia has long insisted that the current norms were not enough to resolve international cyber conflicts. Russia introduced a similar project to the UN two years ago, but it lacked widespread support. In contrast, the current resolution had 40 co-sponsors, and the representatives from Pakistan even said it should be made stronger, suggesting that cyber warfare technology be classified as weapons of mass destruction.

Moral authority

Third, the new resolution calls for additional study of potential threats in the information landscape. Previously, those threats were thought to be limited to military, criminal and terrorist uses. But Russia has been calling for recognition of the threat that the Internet and mobile devices can be used in intelligence gathering. The US was not mentioned by name in the resolution, but it was still clearly directed at them.

Lastly, Russia managed to increase the number of countries on the UN Group of Governmental Experts on Information Security from 15 to 20. Russia previously only had two allies - China and Belorussia - but now it will have the possibility of bringing other supporters on the panel.

Before Snowden’s revelations, Western countries saw the Russian initiative as a desire for censorship and government control of the Internet. Now even the resolutions preamble, which talks about respecting human rights and freedom, seems to play into Russia’s hands. Russia can rightly say that it has not violated those rights, while the US has.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said, as the resolution was adopted, that “Russia is working under the assumption that human rights should not go against other important principles in international law, such as respect for national sovereignty.” That should be taken to mean that governments maintain sovereign rights over the national segment of the Internet - a theory that Washington absolutely does not agree with.

But the success of Russia’s resolution does not mean that the demands contained in the resolution will become reality, since the General Assembly resolutions are really just recommendations. Christopher Painter, the US State Department cybersecurity coordinator has already said that there is no rush to develop international norms on government behavior in the digital world.

Moscow is convinced, however, that Snowden’s revelations have made it harder for the US to impose its positions on the digital world. “The US has lost its moral authority on that subject,” said one Russian diplomatic source.

That’s a point of view that American experts happen to share. At a recent international conference on cyber security, Hoover Institution expert Abe Sofaer warned that disclosures about the details and size of the US surveillance destroyed Washington’s power to preserve the current model of Internet management. (The US considers it important that business and non-profit interests also have a say in the development of the Internet, not just governments).

"We are losing leverage to Russia, China and other countries that want to give governments and the UN major rights in the digital environment,” Sofaer said. “It's terrible.”

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