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Report: US diplomacy must adapt to cyberspace's 'new realities'

The U.S. must ditch its long-running efforts to establish norms of good behavior for nation-states in cyberspace and adopt a new foreign policy to confront a fragmented and potentially dangerous digital realm, according to a Council on Foreign Relations report released Tuesday.

“The era of the global internet is over,” the study by the think tank’s Independent Task Force on Cybersecurity states. “Washington has worked closely over the last three decades with the private sector and allies to promote a vision of a global, open, secure, and interoperable internet, but the reality of cyberspace is now starkly different.”

The wide-ranging report addresses several facets of U.S. cyber policy, such as offensive digital operations, internet freedom, crime and trade. It emphasizes three policy pillars that should underpin the new approach, including consolidation of a “coalition of allies and friends around a vision of the internet that preserves — to the greatest degree possible — a trusted, protected international communication platform.”

The examination comes a few months after the State Department opened a Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy to bolster the Biden administration’s work to enhance digital aid to allies and the U.S. role in setting global cyber diplomacy.

At the same time, foreign adversaries like China and Russia have stepped up their efforts to control what information their respective populaces can access online — especially since Moscow’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine — including social media sites.

The new report makes more than a dozen recommendations federal leaders and policymakers should take up to tackle the increasingly fractious digital space, including establishing an international cybercrime center so allies can maintain pressure on gangs that target critical infrastructure; being more transparent about U.S. Cyber Command’s “hunt forward” missions, which have been used to defend American elections from foreign interference; and holding states accountable for malicious activity originating from their territories.

“A free, global, and open internet was a worthy aspiration that helped guide U.S. policymakers for the internet’s first thirty years. The internet as it exists today, however, demands a reconsideration of U.S. cyber and foreign policies to confront these new realities,” the report concludes.

The task force, chaired by CFR Board Members Nathaniel Fick, President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the new State Department cyber bureau, and Jami Miscik, “believes that U.S. goals moving forward will be more limited and thus more attainable, but the United States needs to act quickly to design strategies and tactics that can ameliorate an urgent threat.”

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Martin Matishak

Martin Matishak

is the senior cybersecurity reporter for The Record. Prior to joining Recorded Future News in 2021, he spent more than five years at Politico, where he covered digital and national security developments across Capitol Hill, the Pentagon and the U.S. intelligence community. He previously was a reporter at The Hill, National Journal Group and Inside Washington Publishers.