I’ve just concluded six years as the principal full-time policy representative from the tech sector in Geneva, covering the Internet as a subject across Geneva-based institutions. In that time I’ve seen a dramatic increase in the number of Internet-related meetings.
Unfortunately, almost every discussion has a state security dimension that is often unsaid but infects the conversation very negatively.
It was clear to me that Geneva needed an ‘outlet’ for all of this, a place where holistic discussions of Internet issues could take place off the record with national security and law enforcement perspectives and stakeholders at the table as they are almost never a direct participant in the work of the mainstream international organisations in Geneva. The question is, how could they be brought to Geneva to address cybersecurity issues directly rather than by proxy, via interagency processes in national capitals whose results are then conveyed in formal UN processes?
The answer ended up being pretty simple, as when I spoke informally with members of these two communities they made clear that they would feel most comfortable if GCSP were to host such discussions.
We got the chance to put the idea to the test on 17th July when I helped GCSP organise and host “Cyber with Security: Shared Needs, Collaborative Solutions.” The event brought together under the Chatham House Rule a small group of senior people from communities as diverse as online rights NGOs, former senior national and international jurists, trade and UN Ambassadors, parliamentarians, and national security leaders. The objective was to test a theory: that given a chance, these communities that disagree so fundamentally on so many levels could actually help one another find solutions that were more than the sum of their parts when it comes to key challenges like privacy online.
The objective was to test a theory: that given a chance, these communities that disagree so fundamentally on so many levels could actually help one another find solutions that were more than the sum of their parts when it comes to key challenges like privacy online.
Too often the dialogue around data protection and privacy is one of ‘balance’ - with an underlying assumption that there is a finite amount of privacy to go around and some must be sacrificed to meet security and law enforcement objectives. This metaphor virtually guarantees that the current (and widening) trust deficit between stakeholders will further deteriorate just when so many problems can only be solved with more cooperation - cooperation which depends upon trust.
One of the interesting elements of the discussion was that it was the first time in my knowledge I have seen senior members of the trade community sit down and discuss the issues they face in privacy and national security exceptions to trade rules with so many constituencies from outside the trade world. A number of participants told us - GCSP’s Gustav Lindstrom and I - that the event was really valuable in part because different communities in Geneva rarely get together and talk about the common issues they are all facing separately.
The July event was itself a follow-up to a dinner that I helped organise in April on the margins of the 2015 Global Conference on Cyberspace where it was clear that getting everyone around the table created a dynamic that made collaboration, rather than just continuing confrontation, possible.
I’m really looking forward to what happens next with this concept and as a GCSP Associate Fellow more generally. The GCSP has a substantial cybersecurity agenda - it seems to me the most substantive in Geneva - and has a long history of hosting discussions like the one mentioned above in July. There’s clearly an opportunity to make a substantial positive impact on some of the most important digital security issues of our time.
Nick Ashton Hart, an Associate Fellow at GCSP, is the Executive Director at the Internet & Digital Ecosystem Alliance (IDEA) and a Senior Fellow at the Diplo Foundation. He recently coordinated a workshop at GCSP, which brought together actors from diverse and often opposing fields to discuss privacy and cyberspace.