Discussion Paper - Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program, Belfer Center

Cyber Norm Emergence at the United Nations—An Analysis of the UN's Activities Regarding Cyber-security

  • Tim Maurer
| September 2011


Cyber-warfare is no longer science fiction and the debate among policy-makers on what norms will guide behavior in cyber-space is in full swing. The United Nations (UN) is one of the fora where this debate is taking place and the focus of this paper. The activity at the UN over the course of the past decade exhibits an astonishing rate of norm emergence in cyber-space relative to typical international relations timelines. Most recently, Russia together with China (and Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) proposed an "International code of conduct for information security" in September 2011. In 2010, the U.S. reversed its long-standing policy position by co-sponsoring for the first time a draft resolution on cyber-security that has been introduced in the UN General Assembly by the Russian Federation since 1998. Generally, two principal streams of negotiations regarding cyber-security can be distinguished at the United Nations: a politico-military stream focusing on cyber-warfare and an economic stream focusing on cyber-crime. I highlight the various signs that norms to govern cyberspace are slowly emerging and moving towards norm cascade. At the same time, I show that this process is dynamic. Using the model of a norm life cycle developed by political scientists Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink my research was therefore guided by the following questions: What exactly have norm entrepreneurs, UN member states and UN organizations, been doing with regard to cyber-security and why was there this variance in activity over time? The first part outlines key definitions and concepts. In part II, I examine the debates among states acting as norm entrepreneurs at the United Nations. This historical analysis is two-fold: I focus on the politico-military stream regarding cyber-warfare first and then on the economic stream on cyber-crime. The third section on the IGF describes the history of this relatively new institution for the sake of comprehensiveness followed by my conclusion.

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For Academic Citation: Maurer, Tim. “Cyber Norm Emergence at the United Nations—An Analysis of the UN's Activities Regarding Cyber-security.” Discussion Paper, 2011-11, Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program, Belfer Center, September 2011.

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