The original promise of the internet was that the free exchange of information would support and encourage liberal democracy worldwide. Yet as our reliance on communication networks has grown, this global network has fractured into the “splinternet” — as many countries have carved out their own parts of the internet with their own rules.
Just as physical walls are built in an effort to keep intruders at bay, the splinternet is the result of defensive steps taken by countries determined to maintain their digital sovereignty. Our fractured internet was brought about by nations seeking to limit the influence of foreign adversaries and maintain order within their borders.
There are numerous examples of this “go at it alone” strategy. China’s “Great Firewall” limits access to many foreign sites and services, including the recent and swift blockage of the emerging audio-chat app Clubhouse. Russia’s “sovereign internet” law provides the state a tighter grip on internet services. In the U.S., during the final weeks of the Trump administration, there were threats to ban TikTok and other Chinese-based apps. In total, at least 35 nations have restricted internet access or blocked social media sites since 2019.
Of course, governments have a right to defend themselves. But, as even a cursory read of military history will tell you, walls have their limits. Eventually, walls are scaled — especially in cyberspace. There is no realistic “go at it alone” strategy when it comes to protecting a country from the array of threats in cyberspace. It’s why the next decade must be the decade of transformation from the status quo of a splintered response to cyberthreats to global alliances built on a consistent set of global cyber rules, information sharing, regulation and collective innovation.
Unlike natural domains — land, sea and air — where nations had centuries to build forms of national power and defense, cyberspace is a rapidly growing battlespace. Only about a dozen countries have the cyber capacity to adequately protect themselves and truly understand the strategic and operational initiatives required to defend themselves.
First, many lack a national cybersecurity framework that outlines roles and responsibilities, legal frameworks, and high-level, tailored strategies to drive cyber transformation, build resilience, and prepare for inevitable attacks in the future.
Second, very few have a central, advanced cyber center with end-to-end capabilities and a flexible architecture to adapt to changing threats like the National Cyber Security Centre in the United Kingdom or the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency in the U.S. These hubs are necessary to house the cybersecurity incident response teams (CSIRTs or CERTs) that provide an agile defense and help proactively identify threats.
Third, they lack the ability to defend mission-critical systems — such as the electrical grid, the health system, and transportation infrastructure — with robust risk assessments and public-private communication between operators, regulators, and the myriad of companies that make up complex supply chains.
And finally, there’s the human factor: Very few countries have developed a sustainable, well-trained cyber workforce of mission-ready professionals.
This is not easy. To just take the last factor, the human one, it took Israel decades of investment into its education system, as well as marrying that with universal military service to nurture, identify and train talent.
To accelerate this process, then, will take global collaboration. Attribution alliances, global information sharing, joint investigations and a global signature repository are among the ways nations should support one another. This could even take the form of a “Cyber WHO,” a global body that could develop norms about behavior in cyberspace; share knowledge about threats and attacks, specifically their digital signatures; establish attribution where possible; establish protocols to share best practices; and provide technical support to countries at all stages of cyber building. This also will have the added benefit of supporting countries at earlier stages of cyber capacity building.
This will work if there are clear benefits to participation, including strategic and financial support to countries that are serious about addressing the four fundamental building blocks of cyber capacity. This can also create a new market of cyber rating mechanisms, similar to the S&P global credit ratings.
Countries that continue down a path of isolation and willingly break global cyber redlines established by a cyber WHO should have a clear understanding of the consequences, such as a poor cyber rating with economic implications, sanctions, or even removal from a newly formed global cyber defense arrangement.
As attack capabilities become more advanced, including the use of data with artificial intelligence, new crypto networks, and the wider adoption of quantum computing, collaboration will become more urgent. Countries will need to rely on each other more often for cyber defense and deterrence. We must build the framework of collaboration today.
Yaron Rosen is a former chief of the Israel Defense Forces cyber staff, research fellow at IDC Herzliya university, and cofounder of Toka, a cyber capacity-building company.