Access Denied

The United Nations couldn't control the Internet even if it wanted to.

The International Telecommunication Union, a special U.N. organization that is "committed to connecting all the world's people," is in the middle of 10 days of largely closed-doors meetings in Dubai, where the agenda seems more aimed at controlling global communications. In opening remarks to the 2,000 delegates from 193 countries, ITU Secretary General Hamadan Touré emphasized that cybersecurity should come first and, implicitly, that it should come under his purview. For all the commitments to openness that he and others profess, this conference is about the national security interests of states.

For starters, Dr. Touré would like to see some form of U.N. control of Internet domain names and numbers, something currently administered by the private, nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). But this would hardly improve security by itself. There is a kind of naïve faith that if nation-states exert greater control over cyberspace-based communications, security will improve. China, Russia, and a host of other nations -- most of them authoritarian -- love the idea of more control, as this would enable greater censorship and erode individual privacy. Sadly, many liberal democratic states, out of a mix of economic and security concerns, go along with the idea of giving nations more authority to regulate cyber-communications.

Among the matters that are feared to be under discussion is the imposition of cyber tolls -- charges levied to allow entry into a country's cybersphere, or "virtual territory." Another effort lies in the realm of fighting pedophiles and curtailing the worst sorts of pornography. Surely this is a noble undertaking, but some worry that authoritarians might really be aiming to further undermine their peoples' freedom of speech, privacy, and civil liberties -- all in the name of this good cause.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of increasing national-level control of cyberspace is the idea being bruited about that anonymity should be banned. Again, there are logical reasons to think about this: making life harder for terrorists, tracking criminals, and deterring social predators. But many of these malicious actors have sufficient expertise to slip the bonds of such a ban, while the rest of us will have lost our privacy. The fact that "deep packet" inspection -- giving nations the right and power to read encrypted cybertraffic -- is also on the table for discussion is troubling too.

Several protests have arisen to the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai. One of the most articulate opposing voices is that of Vint Cerf of Google, an Internet pioneer. His critique has two parts: first, that voices other than those of nation-states need to be heard; second, that it is the very lack of governmental controls and sheer openness of the Internet that creates value and drives the information age forward.

Protest has also taken the form of insurgency. It seems that the hacktivist organization Anonymous may be involved in disruptive cyber acts that have slowed, and at one point stopped, the operations of the conference's official website. This group and many people of like mind around the world see much to worry about when it comes to closed-door meetings of government representatives.

There is also deep irony in the desire of nations to seek more control over cyberspace. Dictators have abused their existing abilities to restrict access in efforts to chill dissent. Hosni Mubarak shut down the Internet in just such an attempt. But he failed, because the Egyptian masses had been using cyberspace to share their anger and gather their courage for many months before the regime struck at the Net. Indeed, the shutdown was the signal to the people that it was time to go to Tahrir Square. Bashar al-Assad seems to have tried something similar over a week ago, when the Net went down briefly in Syria. He too will fail.

In the end, U.N. efforts to control cyberspace, aided and abetted by all too many nations, will fail as well. The virtual world is a vast wilderness - artificial, but beautiful and complex, and growing in size and direction in ways that almost surely lie beyond the ability of governments to control. The sooner this is realized, the better. It will save the world from a costly global struggle between balky nations and nimble insurgent networks.

There are better things for the United Nations to focus on if it wishes to play a productive role in the information age. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon, whose video address at the opening of the Dubai conference spoke of a desire to foster openness and Internet freedom, should act on his own words and reject the role of regulator. Instead, he should lead his organization as a negotiator, fostering behavior-based forms of cyber arms control -- as there is still time to head off an age of "mass disruptive" cyberwars.

Almost all IT is dual-use. Any laptop can be used to wage cyberwar. But it is possible to craft agreements not to use such weaponry first, not to use it against civilian infrastructure or in acts of "cybotage," as in the case of the Stuxnet worm attack on Iran. Many of the nations that have signed the chemical and biological weapons conventions can still make these terrible weapons, but promise not to do so, or to use them. If the United Nations wants a role, it should seek a similar behavioral approach to arms control in cyberspace. Russia first proposed something like this at the United Nations back in the ‘90s. The United States opposed it. Now the Russians are among the best cyberwarriors in the world, and American cybersecurity is in a parlous state.

What is to be done? Let me make a modest suggestion to Dr. Touré: Stream the remainder of the Dubai conference to the world in a live webcast. Allow a global discourse to commence, one in which nations and networks together will find the right way ahead. If you are for openness, then be open.


National Security

The Big Kill

Sorry, Steven Pinker, the world isn't getting less violent.

Writing their Lessons of History in the tumultuous year 1968, Will and Ariel Durant observed that in "the last 3,421 years of recorded history, only 268 have seen no war." The 44 years since they made this observation have added not a single year of peace to that meager total. Yet a number of remarkably hopeful studies published recently suggest war is on the wane. The Human Security Report arrived at this conclusion, which former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan affirmed in its foreword as offering proof that "[t]he world has become much less insecure over the past 20 years." At Harvard, psychology professor Steven Pinker has taken a very long view, finding that our era is far less brutal than ancient, medieval, or even early modern times.

The Human Security Report bases its conclusion on some key trends. First, the number of ongoing conflicts in a given year in which more than 1,000 people die in battle has declined, if a bit choppily, from 25 in the mid-80s to five in 2006. (In 2012, the total I see is back up to about 10.) In addition to this, the number of battle deaths per year, worldwide, has dropped since the end of World War II -- with just a few spikes largely explained by the Korean War (1950-1953), Vietnam from the mid-‘60's to mid-‘70s, and the strife in the Balkans and among former-Soviet republics in the ‘90s. In his Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker goes a little further, noting that over the past 70-plus years the number of battle deaths per 100,000 people has fallen dramatically -- with no spikes, just a couple of "blips."    

The problem with the conclusions reached in these studies is their reliance on "battle death" statistics. The pattern of the past century -- one recurring in history -- is that the deaths of noncombatants due to war has risen, steadily and very dramatically. In World War I, perhaps only 10 percent of the 10 million-plus who died were civilians. The number of noncombatant deaths jumped to as much as 50 percent of the 50 million-plus lives lost in World War II, and the sad toll has kept on rising ever since. Perhaps the worst, but hardly the only, terrible example of this trend can be seen in the Congo war -- flaring up again right now -- in which over 90 percent of the several million dead were noncombatants. As to Pinker's battle-death ratios, they are somewhat skewed by the fact that overall populations have exploded since 1940; so even a very deadly war can be masked by a "per 100,000 of population" stat.

There are better ways to parse the problem of war's prevalence and its patterns over time. One approach would be simply to look at the number of armed conflicts under way at any given time. The Human Security Report actually does this for the period 1946-2008, its compelling graphic showing a steady rise to over 50 wars per year in the early 1990s. The rest of that decade saw a drop of about 40 percent -- to a great extent driven by the winding down of the Balkan and post-Soviet wars -- and then a rising pattern once again post-9/11. Yes, the number of wars is down by over a third since the peak 20 years ago, but ongoing conflicts today are still more than double the totals seen in the years from the end of World War II until the mid-1950s, and are equal to the numbers of wars ongoing during the Vietnam era. It is hard to describe this as a world in which war is on the wane.

The argument that the world has become more peaceful is even harder to sustain if one focuses on the patterns of the most destructive wars of the past few centuries. In my own work, I chose to search for what I call "big-kill" wars, during which a million or more die -- soldiers and civilians. From 1800-1850, only the Napoleonic Wars surpassed the million-death mark. In the latter half of the 19th century, there were two such wars: the Taiping Rebellion, during which 20 million or more Chinese died; and the Lopez War between Paraguay and its neighbors. The latter conflict resulted in "only" a million deaths, but Paraguay lost roughly 80 percent of military-age males during this war, which had a shattering societal effect.

Between 1900 and 1950, the number of big-kill wars doubled, if one is willing to accept the view of some that the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) reached a million deaths. About the two world wars there is no doubt. The same is true of the civil war in China that ultimately brought Mao Zedong to power. And if one wants to consider the forced collectivization of farms that Stalin pursued as a form of internal war -- which also saw the deaths of millions -- then the total for this period would rise to five.

The troubling rise in big-kill wars in the first half of the 20th century was followed by an even more disturbing pattern in the second half: they doubled once again. There was nothing of the magnitude of World War II in sheer numbers of dead, but the million-mark in war deaths was steadily surmounted, mostly in societies in which such losses had staggering effects.

Six of these wars occurred in Africa. In rough chronological order they took place in Biafra, Sudan, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Rwanda, and Congo. Some debate whether the Rwandan genocide reached a million or fell slightly below, and the Human Security Project asserts that the International Red Cross's estimate that five million people have died in the Congo war (an estimate echoed by many other reporting agencies) is a bit high -- but both wars clearly fit the "big-kill" category in terms of percentages of the populations that have died from these wars and their societal effects. Besides, the more common historical pattern in the statistics of deadly quarrels has been to under-report deaths, so Rwanda and Congo should be kept in the count.

The other four big-kill wars occurred in Asia: Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Afghanistan -- the last just counting the Russian war there (1979-1989), not the civil strife of the ‘90s and the American intervention over the past decade. All four easily surpassed the million-mark in war deaths. There is debate about whether the Iran-Iraq War during the 1980s reached this level -- though there is little doubt about the profound effect of the conflict on both countries. 

The rising number of the deadliest conflicts over the past two centuries belies both the conclusions of the Human Security Report and those of Professor Pinker. However, since 2000 there has been only one big-kill war: the one in Congo, which now has the dubious distinction of suffering seven-figure war deaths both before and just after the turn the century. But I don't see much prospect for yet another doubling of big-kill wars during the first half of this century. The most likely scenario for a war causing massive loss of life would be a second Korean war. Does the dearth of new million-death conflicts mean that war has finally begun to wane?

I don't think so. For there is another alarming trend that has been getting under way alongside the big-kill wars: the rise of smaller conflicts that nevertheless cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands. The Balkan wars of the 1990s fit this pattern. As does the Chechen resistance to Russia, both before and since the millennium. The civil war in Burundi (1993-2005) and Somalia (ongoing) fit this bill as well. The same goes for the strife in Darfur, and Syria is on the edge of entering this category as well. Most of the conflicts that fall into this category will occur in failed or failing states -- see this magazine's Failed States Index as a guide to where the next disaster may occur. The "red zones" of critical concern are massive.

No, war is not on the wane. The second horseman of the Apocalypse remains with us. Indeed, it seems he may even have found a fresh mount.