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State Department Official On Multilateral Cyber Efforts

MODERATOR: Good afternoon. Okay, and continuing with our program of bringing policy experts down to talk to you, we have [State Department Official] to talk to us about multilateral cyber efforts. Please, go ahead.

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sure. So thanks for being here today. Thanks for —

MODERATOR: Sorry, real quick – this is on background, attribution to a senior State Department official. He’ll speak up front, and then we’ll take some questions at the end. My bad.

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you. So thanks again to everybody for being here today, and really appreciate the opportunity to talk about what we think is a pretty important issue that’s facing us. On November 18th in the third committee of the UN General Assembly, a Russian-sponsored resolution on cyber crime was passed. And that resolution is now before the entire UN General Assembly with a vote imminently, expected by Christmas Eve. And the – we have very serious concerns about that resolution in particular because it calls for the formation of a group that would look at creating a new cyber crime treaty. And that emphasis that Russia has been sponsoring is the reflection of kind of decades-long effort that they have been at to get enough supporters to push forward their vision of what this new cyber crime treaty would look like.

Our problems with it are that, one, we already have a cyber crime treaty in existence, the Budapest Convention. We also have several mechanisms in international – various international fora, including the UN, to handle this type of thing. Also the Russians clearly are interested in pushing their vision of what the internet should look like in the future, and that’s conflating this idea of cyber crime with cyber security and cyber controls. So they’re interested in a treaty that would give them the type of control over the internet space that they’re interested in and that stand against fundamental American freedoms.

And in addition to all of this, we see the greatest need right now in the cyber crime area as building capacity among the nations of the world so that they can tackle this with greater alacrity, so that they can go after bad guys with more ease, so that we can trade information with a little bit more ease. And again, we have the existing mechanisms to do that. This Russian effort would take resources and time away from building that capacity among the states of the world, the countries of the world, and focus it more on putting together a treaty which – as I’ve already said – we don’t think is necessary whatsoever.

So these are our fundamental concerns, and it’s sort of a complex and technical issue, but one we think needs attention, and one, of course, as I said, that gives us a lot of concerns. I think I can leave it there for the moment, turn it over for Q&A.

MODERATOR: Yeah, if you want to indicate if you have a question, and sorry, attribution is to a State Department official. Just State Department official.

QUESTION: Not senior?

MODERATOR: Not senior, sorry.

QUESTION: Well, you’re a senior to us. (Laughter.)

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you.

QUESTION: What are the chances of you guys prevailing, or the Russians not prevailing as the —

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: They’re low, meaning that the chances —

QUESTION: Which one? (Laughter.)

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The chances that the Russians will see their resolution passed in the UN General Assembly are high.

QUESTION: Okay. And – but there’s still some time here, this is just the – like the opening salvo, right? So if it does pass, all it does is create this group, right, which would then look at creating a new cyber crime treaty?

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Correct. Correct. Correct. And that would be in August of next year, that that meeting – that that meeting would take place, the inaugural meeting of this body would take place. So yes, there is time, but we are working with likeminded – and there are quite a few likeminded countries with us, including our traditional partners, but others who have signed up to the Budapest Convention and see its value as well – who are working to try and illustrate for some countries that are not as familiar with the issue set why this is problematic. Because on its surface, certainly a cyber crime treaty sounds like a good idea. Who wouldn’t want it? The problem is in trying to explain to those countries not as familiar with this issue set that there are mechanisms already existent and that what the Russians are really driving at is a problematic issue.

QUESTION: Right. And then just last thing, when you say that the chances are very high that they will get the vote to go their way, I mean, is this looking like the Cuba embargo vote? I mean, how bad is it?

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Meaning that – so to get out of the third committee of the UN General Assembly, there was already a vote and it passed 88 to 58, although there were a healthy group of abstentions. If you count the abstentions with the no votes, there were actually more votes that were not yes, in other words in favor of the Russian resolution than there were.

That said, we expect the same voting patterns to take place in the UN General Assembly some time in the next few days.

QUESTION: So it could pass with enough abstentions that the nos and the abstentions and the whole assembly could be more than – but it will still pass.

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Correct. Absolutely correct, which we think is an indication of the complexity of the topic for many countries, but also the division that exists in the group of countries who are considering this issue as to what the right way forward is. That’s not what the Russians want their narrative to be, which is this is – they would like it to be thought of as something that’s clearly needed, that nations have all spoken up about. But they’re ignoring when they say that a lot of past votes.

MODERATOR: Carol.

QUESTION: Is there any pattern to who supports it, like nations from a certain region of the world or a certain type of government? And also, I really don’t – I’m not a very technical person, but I really don’t understand. You present this as this would divert resources and time away from what’s needed, but if it passed do you have any problem with what they actually want? Is it just diverting time and resources, because they’d be focusing on a new one, or do you also have an issue with what it is they are proposing building?

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So absolutely, we have an issue with what they’re proposing because based on previous language, based on previous resolutions they’ve passed, based on previous records of behavior, what Russia wants out of the internet space is a form of lockdown on information; a fundamental curtailment of those freedoms that the United States fully embraces and wants to see represented in the internet space, not curtailed.

So we have grave concerns that the Russian effort to create another cyber crime treaty would merely be a vehicle to try to impose their vision of what the internet space should be on the world, and we want – that’s not something we’re going to – that’s not something we can accept, that’s something that we have great concerns about.

QUESTION: So I gather from that countries like China would support it then, because they would like more control. I mean, who’s supporting it? I don’t expect you to name 89 countries, but – or whatever it is.

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So China is – China is absolutely a supporter. Just to go back to what I was saying before, language from the resolution says that – or I should say the title of it is, “Countering the Use of Information and Communications Technologies for Criminal Purposes.” And obviously, there’s a grave difference, particularly in that arena, with what Russia describes as a criminal purpose and what the United States would describe as a criminal purpose.

And again, I keep citing Russia because they’re the originator of the resolution, but there are countries like China and like – there are others – I won’t name them all – who are interested in that result. In other words, that type of governance of the internet space. However, we believe there are also countries that are not exactly sure what a new cyber crime treaty means and they’re perhaps not aware of this more malign intent. And so our efforts have been along the lines of trying to educate as well as point out that many of the things Russia claims are needed in the cyber crime treaty – a new cyber crime treaty – are already existent under the Budapest Convention, under the intergovernmental experts group that works out of Vienna that’s part of the UN system that is also handling this, and has specifically been charged by the United Nations to cover this issue and come up with an assessment on it.

MODERATOR: Okay. Abigail and then Jessica.

QUESTION: Forgive me for not knowing more about historically Russia’s ability to do something similar, but why do you think it is outside of dictatorships and other countries that may wish to use this as a way to silence people who are using the internet and what have you? Why is the U.S. struggling to convince those countries to come to your side and be against this treaty?

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I’m not sure I would characterize it that way. So if we look at the Budapest Convention, for example, there are 64 member-states that are members of it, and over 130 countries use it as the basis for how they govern cyber crime. And in those fundamentals, I think you see an embrace of the values that we like.

The problem with the term cyber crime and all that it connotes is that it’s a difficult and complex sphere, and for some countries it may not – they may not be aware or it may not rise to the level of a differentiation between control of the internet or lack of control, particularly in this day and age when we’re seeing a lot about cyber crime., and when it’s a new and not well-understood issue. I think a lot of countries may not be aware of the distinctions between cyber security, cyber crime, cyber controls or internet controls, and so they may not be aware that by embracing the Russian resolution, they’re not actually looking to better understand the issue of cyber crime; what they’re doing is signing onto a concept of how the internet will be controlled in the future. That’s how I’d answer it.

QUESTION: Just to follow up on that really quickly, the pressure that the U.S. would be able to exert, to me it seems like it would normally be stronger than, say, the influence of Russia in that context. So what – why do you think Russia is winning out as far as convincing people of the way that this bill should be interpreted?

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I think there are two basic answers to that. First of all, this has been a concerted effort by Russia for a long time, in the sense that they have very specifically been talking about a new cyber crime convention as code for controls over the internet for some time. And they have been very targeted and particular in the way they have gone after countries to try and support them for just this eventuality, for a vote inside the United Nations.

In addition, I would go back to the sort of lack of understanding. I think there are quite a few countries that, when Russia suggests a cyber crime convention or a cyber crime treaty, they don’t – they’re not supporting Russia because they believe in greater internet controls, although there are countries like that. China is an example. But they’re just – they don’t understand the complexities of the issue. They don’t understand what the bottom line of Russia is, perhaps because it’s technically complex, perhaps because they have concerns and they want a voice in developing the international architecture, perhaps because they’re not aware of the Budapest Convention and how it can help them. So I think all of these factors combine to create a very favorable picture for the Russians right now.

MODERATOR: Jessica.

QUESTION: I’m also having trouble visualizing how the treaty would actually change things. Would you be able to give a practical example of the freedom that the U.S. would lose if the treaties comes into effect? I mean, how would this materially affect (inaudible) or the U.S.?

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Sure. So I’m not an international organizations expert so I can’t cite you law and the effects of law. But what I can say, I can try to give two results that might occur from an adoption of the cyber crime treaty.

First, going back to this point of resources, so if nations and the United Nations system is devoting resources, time, and energy to the negotiation of a new cyber crime treaty, that’s, by definition, money that nations and the United Nations are not devoting to building the capacity of X Country to try and handle cyber crime or to try to understand it or to try to liaise with other law enforcement bodies around the world or international law enforcement bodies to come to some sort of better capacity, better ability to handle this type of stuff.

In addition, if Russia is able to codify in a United Nations treaty that internet controls are necessary and able to even detail what those controls should be, that’s inimical to the United States interests because that doesn’t tally with the fundamental freedoms we see as necessary across the globe. That’s not commensurate with our vision of democracy.

QUESTION: What kind of controls would they be introducing at the practical sort of level?

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I don’t know. I can’t speculate about what they would do. But looking at the track record in terms of what they’ve passed inside their country in terms of cyber controls and the way they have attacked the issue of cyber crime as a proxy for increasing controls on the internet space, that gives us a very clear clue in what direction they are driving.

MODERATOR: Robbie.

QUESTION: Thanks. A couple – you mentioned the opportunity cost for money that wouldn’t go toward capacity building. Do you – is there a ballpark price tag on what this new body and creating this new treaty would cost that would take away from the total number of dollars the UN spends each year on capacity building and this?

And then also, could you elaborate a bit on the U.S. efforts to try to tip the balance and the votes in the U.S.’s favor? Who’s in charge of that from State side? Is Ambassador Kraft directly involved? Thanks.

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So on the ballpark figure, no, I can’t give you a ballpark figure. The United Nations at one point, if this relationship passes, will, of course, establish a budget, and that will give sort of a general frame of reference. That may not get at the deeper question, though, of what resources from the national level, not just the United States but other countries, as being diverted to negotiate the treaty rather than capacity build. But we worry that it’s significant enough to be of grave concern.

The United States effort has been across agencies. Of course, our mission at the United Nations in New York has been involved. Our mission to the United Nations in Vienna has been involved. The International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Bureau, has been involved. So has the International Organizations Bureau. So have our good colleagues in the Cyber Bureau, S/CCI. So it’s a responsibility we share, and we are every day coordinating on next steps.

QUESTION: Can I follow up on that? Were you hampered at all by the fact that there wasn’t a UN ambassador for a big chunk of this year? And then also, if it is created, would the U.S. take part in this body?

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So the first part of the question, I wouldn’t say we were hampered, because this has been going on for so long and has been – the Russians have shopped this idea in so many different multilateral fora, both in Vienna and New York, that we have been working this at multiple levels across multiple ambassadors and multiple administrations.

In terms of the latter answer, I don’t think we can speculate on that.

QUESTION: If you would be part of this body? If they vote to create it, would you part of the body?

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Basically, our first goal right now is to do as much as we can to unseat the Russian effort and try to make sure the resolution fails. Once whatever happens happens – and as I said before, we’re thinking that it probably will be passed, this resolution – then we’ll decide how best to respond. And that will be an interagency process, where we have to decide what our top lines are.

MODERATOR: Okay. Shaun.

QUESTION: Thanks. There have been a few recent incidents of countries curbing internet access quite sharply. You’ve seen it in India; you’ve seen it in Iran. Do you see this as a growing trend? And if the Russians were to prevail in this resolution, is there any risk that those trends could actually be accelerated?

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So I feel uncomfortable generally characterizing the trends in the world. I’m not a good expert on that. I can talk about the cyber crime resolution, and it is precisely our fear that, codified at an international and global level, that that would allow the codification at an international and global level of these types of controls that’s driving our opposition and our concerns about this resolution.

MODERATOR: Lara.

QUESTION: There’s been a fair amount of reporting over the last year or so that Russia has meddled in all sorts of state issues in Eastern Europe down to South America. Is this one of the arguments that you take to some of the allies who might side with this Russian resolution, and what do they say?

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So I’ll take the bottom half of your question and just note that those who are likeminded are primarily interested in the same things we are in terms of preserving internet freedoms. For those countries that we are talking to to convince them that the Russian resolution is a bad idea, there are – as I’ve tried to explain earlier – a cross-section of interests. Our primary goal with a lot of countries is just to educate them. It’s not a process that’s really based in anything else. It’s to try and show them that mechanisms already exist, that the purpose behind the cyber crime convention as defined by Russia is actually inimical to their interests and the prosperity and health of democracies around the world.

So that’s our primary focal point and how we try to approach this conversation. And in some cases, we’ve succeeded in convincing countries to reassess what their bottom lines are and to try to dig a little deeper into what the real purpose is behind the Russian convention – or the Russian resolution.

MODERATOR: Yes.

QUESTION: Are there any NATO countries that look like they’re going to be supporting the resolution?

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I can tell you that there are a lot of likeminded countries with us, including G7 countries. And again, it is primarily because they share our fundamental outlook on what the internet should look like and shouldn’t look like and how it should be governed and why the issues of cyber security shouldn’t be conflated with cyber crime. They’re really fundamentally different things.

QUESTION: So they are not – is that a —

QUESTION: It’s G7 then.

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So there are G7 – there are G7 countries with us. There are – I mean, again, I’m not going to detail the whole list. There are NATO members who are on board with our vision and our efforts to push back on the Russian resolution and try to defeat it.

MODERATOR: Yes.

QUESTION: Just a follow-up. Is there a list that’s public of the countries that are so far for and against?

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It should be on the United Nations website. So the Third Committee was the original body that considered this resolution, Third Committee of the UN General Assembly, this year’s General Assembly. They voted it out. I believe every country and how it voted is on that list. And then the same thing will happen when the UN General Assembly as a whole votes on it (inaudible).

MODERATOR: So you can do the comparison there to see. Okay.

QUESTION: You said that this is an effort that Russia has been undertaking for multiple administrations, ambassadors. It’s been going on for a while. But this is the first time – and I don’t know how to say this except bluntly. So this is the first time we’ve had a President who’s stood up publicly and said, “Russia, if you’re listening,” come on in. Does that make a difference? Do countries question that? And is that in any way hampering your ability to make the argument that you’re making?

STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m not going to talk about that. What I will talk about is what we’ve been trying to pursue with these countries, again, in the cyber crime contex,t is to illustrate to them, one, what the issue set is really about – cyber crime versus cyber controls versus cyber security; and then two, to try to educate them as to why mechanisms that are already existent, like the Budapest Convention, are really vital, healthy, and work very well for most of the purposes or most of the concerns that they might list; and then third, to try and show them that what Russia is really after is not a cyber crime treaty per se; it is a governance of the internet space that they would find unacceptable and certainly that the United States finds unacceptable.

MODERATOR: Last one. Anybody? No. All right.

QUESTION: I’ll –

MODERATOR: Go ahead.

QUESTION: It’s fine.

MODERATOR: You good? All right. Thanks.

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