Cyberwar: How to Regulate Nation State Warfare on the Internet

Among the key events that the 2016 reserved for us one can certainly count the cyber attack targeting one of the central nodes of Internet traffic in the US as well as the attacks on Hilary Clinton’s email server, and the following diplomatic crisis between the US and Russia. These events remark on the extent to which our societies depend on ICTs. We come to realize that these technologies changed our daily practices as well as the very infrastructure on which our societies rely.

Cyber security

Cyber security cyber security market will grow to US$170 billion by 2020

Estimates indicate that the cyber security market will grow to US$170 billion by 2020, posing the risk of a progressive militarization of the cyber domain driving a cyber arms race and competition for digital supremacy, and hence increasing the possibility of escalation.[1] In this scenario, regulating cyber attacks, and the conflicts that they may spark, to ensure international security and fostering stability is a critical need. If not addressed, it risks crippling national and international equilibrium.

However, defining such regulations prove to be a serious challenge, especially as the current conceptual and normative frameworks that should underpin them is often limited.

As I argued elsewhere, part of the efforts to regulate cyber conflicts rely on an analogy-based approach, according to which the regulatory problems concerning cyber conflicts are only apparent, insofar as these are not radically different from other forms of conflicts. Those endorsing this approach claim that the existing legal framework governing armed conflicts is sufficient to regulate the cyber battlefield. All that is needed is an in-depth analysis of such laws and an adequate interpretation of the phenomena.

While this approach proved to be effective in the short term, and was necessary a decade ago to avoid the so-called digital Wild West; in the medium-and long-term is unsatisfactory and potentially misleading. It poses serious risks to the stability of current and future information societies. For efforts based on analogies between kinetic and cyber conflicts often end with ad hoc solutions, fall short of political and ethical foresight, and overlook, and are limited by, the theoretical vacuum underlying them.

A relation of mutual influence exists between the way conflicts are waged and the societies waging them. As Clausewitz remarked, more than an art or a science, conflicts are a social activity. And much like other social activities, conflicts mirror the values of societies while relying on their technological and scientific developments. In turn, the principles endorsed to regulate conflicts play a crucial role in shaping societies.

For this reason, the regulation of cyber conflicts cannot afford to be future-blind and disregard questions concerning the impact of these new forms of conflicts on future information societies, on their values, the rights and security of their citizens, on their national and international stability. Conceptual and ethical questions need to be addressed now, while efforts to regulate this phenomenon are still nascent, to ensure fair and effective regulations, which will contribute to shaping open, pluralistic, and stable information societies.

Among the several hard lessons that we learned in 2016, the one about the central role and potential of cyber conflicts for national and international stability should not be missed. It calls for policy-makers, military and laws experts, philosophers and ethicists to coordinate their efforts to develop foresight and guidance to design peaceful mature information societies.



[1] MarketsandMarkets. 2015. “Cyber Security Market by Solutions & Services – 2020.”


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Mariarosaria Taddeo

Mariarosaria Taddeo

Mariarosaria Taddeo works at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford and Faculty Fellow at the Alan Turing Institute. Her recent work focuses mainly on the ethical analysis of cyber security practices and information conflicts. Her area of expertise is Information and Computer Ethics, although she has worked on issues concerning Philosophy of Information, Epistemology, and Philosophy of AI. She published several papers focusing on online trust, cyber security and cyber warfare and guest-edited a number of special issues of peer-reviewed international journals: Ethics and Information Technology, Knowledge, Technology and Policy, Philosophy & Technology. She also edited (with L. Floridi) a volume on ‘The Ethics of Information Warfare’ (Springer, 2014) and is currently writing a book on ‘The Ethics of Cyber Conflicts’ under contract for Routledge. Dr. Taddeo is the 2010 recipient of the Simon Award for Outstanding Research in Computing and Philosophy and of the 2013 World Technology Award for Ethics. She serves editor-in-chief of Minds & Machines, in the executive editorial board of Philosophy & Technology. Since 2016, Dr Taddeo is Global Future Council Fellow for the Council on the Future of Cybersecurity of the World Economic Forum.
Mariarosaria Taddeo
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