A new battleground: cyberspace

The internet has become a digital battlefield – and with the frontline all around us, it falls on each of us to act. That was one of the main take-aways from last week’s event with Microsoft president and chief legal officer, Brad Smith, on “Countering Hybrid Threats: From Protecting Elections to a Digital Geneva Convention”, co-hosted in Brussels by Microsoft and the German Marshall Fund (GMF).

Joining Brad Smith on stage for a panel discussion about how best to respond to these emerging threats were David Martinon, France’s Ambassador for Digital Affairs; Laura Rosenberger, Senior Fellow at GMF and Director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy; Rose Gottemoeller, Deputy Secretary General of NATO; and Ian Lesser, Vice President of GMF.


In a time of rapid technological change, there is uncertainty as to how international law can protect citizens from online threats from nation-state actors. With cyberattacks increasing in intensity and destructive potential, virtually any state can attack in cyberspace, regardless of their military capacity and civilians are increasingly caught in the middle. With the growing adoption of technology into all aspects of our society, we have learned that no democracy is immune, and no democracy has the means to fully inoculate itself from cyberthreats. This creates an increasingly volatile world – one where “we don’t know where the borderline is between peace and war, between conflict and war, between crisis and conflict,” in Rose Gottemoeller’s words. The hybrid nature of these new threats is in part the reason why it is so challenging to determine the best response.

“International humanitarian law says that governments must protect civilians in times of war – but it doesn’t say they must protect civilians in times of peace.” – Brad Smith

The panel discussed Microsoft’s proposal for a Digital Geneva Convention to help address the complexity of threats in the online world and there was collective agreement on the need for a clear global consensus on establishing and enforcing rules in cyberspace. “As an international organisation NATO does not create norms or international law. States do that and we welcome and support activities that feed into the development of broader and more sophisticated international law,” said Rose Gottemoeller. David Martinon noted that as part of the UN group of government experts (UNGGE) it was acknowledged that international law is fully applicable in cyberspace and that the groundwork was laid for establishing “a few norms of behavior that we believe are extremely useful for the future.” Yet the question remains as to how to make sure these norms are implemented.

Panelists also discussed the need for both the public and private sector to work together to respond to hybrid threats, with Brad Smith noting that there is a special role for the technology sector as first responders, as technology providers are those who “show up first to try to help people who have been attacked”. Laura Rosenberg agreed: “It’s a shared responsibility to address these issues,” for governments, civil society and private sector alike. When an attack is unfolding in real time, both governments and the tech sector need to be in a position to shut it down.

Brad Smith concluded discussions by calling for the international community to commit to protecting civilians from nation-state attacks in times of peace. He also noted the need to mobilize civil society’s support and public opinion on this topic. It is only in this way that humanity can “respond to advances in weapon technology … [and] protect itself from the potential of the horrors of war that will otherwise be unleashed”.

Watch the full panel discussion here:

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