Google-China spat elevates cybersecurity to foreign policy priority

In diplomacy and politics, how a message is delivered is often as important as its content. It’s helpful to view Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent comments about cybersecurity and Internet freedom in this light.

Clinton’s speech did not announce billions for a new program or a major treaty with a foreign adversary. Nonetheless, her comments directed squarely at the Chinese government served to elevate the importance of Internet freedom and cybersecurity to new heights at Foggy Bottom and around the world.

Although the State Department indicated that a major speech on information technology was planned before Google’s spat with China over allegations of cyberattacks originating in that country, Clinton’s choice to weigh in on cybersecurity in general, and the Google incident in particular, was deliberate and therefore significant.

“States, terrorists and those who would act as their proxies must know that the United States will protect our networks,” she said. “Those who disrupt the free flow of information in our society or any other pose a threat to our economy, our government and our civil society.”

She didn’t accuse China of the attacks. But she said Beijing had stepped up online censorship, and she called on authorities there to investigate Google’s allegations. She included China among a number of countries where there has been "a spike in threats to the free flow of information" during the past year. She also named Tunisia, Uzbekistan, Egypt and Vietnam.

“This was really an important speech,” said James Lewis, director of Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Technology and Public Policy Program. "It was the first time the U.S. has ever publicly taken someone to task for doing something bad on the Internet and did it at a senior level. That’s an incredible step forward because we need to tell people there are limits, ‘You’ve got to back off.’ "

“It could have been [Homeland Security Secretary Janet] Napolitano, it could have been [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates, but it made sense to have it be Clinton because this is really an international issue,” Lewis added.

Meanwhile, Clinton’s comments didn’t go over too well with Chinese authorities. China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Ma Zhaoxu, shot back, “We resolutely oppose such remarks and practices that contravene facts and undermine China-U.S. relations. China’s Internet is open.” Another official was quoted by a state news agency: “Accusation that the Chinese government participated in [the] cyberattack, either in an explicit or inexplicit way, is groundless and aims to denigrate China."

So why did State choose to get involved so publicly in an area that’s so diplomatically messy? According to some observers in the United States, there was little choice.

“Chinese cyberattackers have been very, very aggressively stealing information, they’ve been intruding into government systems, into private-sector systems, and they’ve been coordinating that with a development effort to acquire as much competitive information as they can by other means,” said Scott Borg, director and chief economist of the nonprofit U.S. Cyber Consequences Unit.

The U.S. economy can’t afford to let its corporations hemorrhage intellectual property, Borg said, and the United States needs to assert itself with China when it comes to information and IT. He said the culprits in the Google incident are almost certainly Chinese. But China is not a monolith, and various rival factions could be involved.

Alan Paller, director of research at the SANS Institute, said Clinton’s speech reflected an understanding of the extent of computer security problems after years of cybersecurity-related incidents and reports. “It was her making a speech that was the important thing, not what she said in the speech,” he said.

Borg said Clinton’s comments about Internet freedom represented the opening round in negotiations that the two countries will need to have about cyberspace. So far, both sides seem willing to engage; Clinton and China’s Ma have called for dialogue.

Lewis, a former member of the U.S. Foreign Service, said Clinton conveyed the right message. “This isn’t a declaration of war,” he said. “It’s saying, ‘Hey, listen we’ve really got to talk’ — there’s rules, we need to make them clear, and we have to obey them.”

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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