The Internet and International Discourse: Connecting the Cyber World and International Law

 Today, the rapid expansion of technology has pushed its influence into both the domains of politics and law in ways unlike that of any previous time in history. Here, Adam Grech looks to examine how the cyber world and its widely varying norms have presented new and difficult challenges in the world of international law, and the number of different spheres affected.

In a world of ever increasing technological advancements and mass communication, we find ourselves immersed in a cyber age in which we are connected in ways we have never been before. These connections allow us to trade with one another in mere seconds, share ideas, and spread information effortlessly across the globe. Despite all the benefits that come with living in a time of globalisation and international access, we are constantly presented with new and increasingly difficult challenges.  Cyber attacks on states and businesses, the protection of intellectual property, as well as defending the right to privacy, are all new complications of the information epoch that we are now forced to face, and topics that find themselves on the frontier of international legal and political discussions.

Cyber Security and Terrorism

Thomas Hawk/Creative commons license

Thomas Hawk/Creative commons license

While there are many areas of statecraft touched by the cyber world, state security may be the domain in need of the most attention. Due to the relatively new nature of cyber attacks as a major security threat, the international legal framework that defines proper norms and the codes of conduct for such actions are somewhat more limited than in other areas. Of the many difficulties faced, one of the more significant challenges the global community currently must address is determining the point at which an individual event is considered an attack on state security. While some nations have deemed a cyber attack as an action in which there is a distinct “use of force”, others have debated the clarity of this definition. In many circumstances, there is a lack of direct physical action that some deem necessary for an official attack. Additionally, governments themselves have used cyber attacks as a means to gain sensitive information from rival states, as well as to disrupt state activities. For example, both Iran, who has hacked into multiple U.S. banks and made an attempt at an American dam as well as the United States, who disrupted Iran’s production of nuclear weapons via a computer virus, have carried out cyber attacks on one another that could be described as bordering on acts of war. This gap in state cooperation and understanding is significant due to the nature of international law itself. Without a set group of understood norms that guide behavior, a trait that is crucial to the success of laws between states, it will be difficult for future parties involved to come to agreed upon terms for what constitutes an attack, as well as what counter measures are appropriate. Looking forward, it is clear that the governments of the world must bridge gaps on a number of different security and safety issues in which there may either be little to no prior precedent, or where different states have conflicting statutes and norms. As we have seen with Iran and the United States, cyber conflict between states can escalate quickly with a lack of a global standards and laws, and similar situations could continue to arise in the future should these disparities remain.

Business and Internet Safety

ITU Pictures/Creative commons license

ITU Pictures/Creative commons license


Along with public cyber security concerns on a statewide level, there is also a great need for improvement within the private sector.  As we have witnessed with companies like JP Morgan and EBay, large security breaches of private information can have significant financial repercussions for both corporations as well as consumers. Individual’s financial information, stock prices, and access to private company information can all be negatively effected by potential security threats. Additionally, the sources of these attacks pose a significant problem for policy makers as while those harmed by hacks in the financial sector may reside within the afflicted country’s borders, the same may not be true of those who were responsible for them, presenting numerous problems related to the extradition of cyber criminals. While the rule of international criminal law comes into effect, the relationship between the states involved often becomes the deciding factor on state-to-state extradition, as there is no legal requirement for the international extradition of an alleged criminal. For example, when examining the extradition proceedings between the United States and the nations holding those who have committed cyber crimes from abroad, some states, such as Turkey, have been willing to extradite those who have hacked foreign businesses, while others, such as Iran, have been less inclined to do so and could remain a legal barrier in the future. Looking ahead, should this distinct gap in policy and norms between states remain, it is possible that a political schism could shield those looking to obtain sensitive financial information from individuals and businesses, leaving open clear questions on how to proceed in order to best protect financial markets and consumers from cyber conflict, as well as the premier legal solution to close these existing fissures.

The Future of International Cyber Law

While there is still much work that needs to be done in order to improve levels of security for both nations vulnerable to potential breaches as well as their citizens, a number of states have taken proper policy steps in the right direction via requests for extradition, as well as the prosecution of individuals found to be committing cyber crimes. Despite this progress however, the quickly evolving nature of technology and the cyber world leaves open the possibility that new problems are to arise faster than we can solve them, with the potential for broader and more extreme attacks to occur in the future. Additionally, the difficulty of bridging the cyber security gaps in international law as well as alleviating existing levels of tension between states will prove to be difficult political barriers to cross. In order to move ahead, it is important that world leaders act swiftly and proactively in order to best predict possible obstacles, and work together in order to construct a sturdy chassis for the future of cyber law in an international context.



The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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