Australia’s new cyber strategy: grabbing the international initiative
22 Apr 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user Eddie Wong

Last August during a speech in Sydney, DFAT Secretary Peter Varghese claimed that ‘all foreign policy starts at home’. This sentiment is echoed in Australia’s brand new Cyber Security Strategy, which firmly establishes ‘global responsibility and influence’ as one the five key themes of the paper.

Our last home-grown cyber strategy, released in 2009, revealed little about our thinking around the key international debates of the day,  such as cyber security norms of behaviour, the applicability international law and internet governance. It also lacked any concrete plan for how Australia could shape and creatively engage the region on cyber issues, as a result Australia missed a golden opportunity to influence regional thinking on cyber matters.

Yesterday morning, Prime Minster Malcolm Turnbull changed all of that when he launched the highly anticipated update to Australia’s cyber security strategy (PDF). This most recent effort offers plenty of detail on Australia’s approach to international cyber policy and sets out a sensible working agenda for the next four years.

Most importantly, it lays out a coherent manifesto on Australia’s ideal view of cyberspace and how we should use our diplomatic tools to pursue, persuade and convince others in our near region of the advantages of our approach and strength of our perspectives.

Briefly summarised, this view calls for an internet that’s open, free and secure based on our values of freedom of speech, right to privacy and rule of law. It supports a multistakeholder internet and the applicability of international law to cyberspace, and argues that closing the digital divide is in everyone’s interest.

To help achieve those new clear and prominent foreign policy goals, the Foreign Minister will soon appoint Australia’s first Cyber Ambassador. Many of Australia’s key partners including the US, the Netherlands and Japan have successfully placed experts in Ambassador-esque roles to help drive their cyber values and agendas overseas.

The creation of such a role is a smart move, and will serve as a quick and sensible way to elevate the profile of cyber issues within DFAT and on the international stage.

The new Ambassador will have a challenging and multifaceted role, with tasks ranging from navigating complex norms work within the UNGGE, to continuing already fruitful work within the ASEAN Regional Forum, to supporting trade promotion efforts and helping reach a resolution on the red hot internet governance agenda. The Ambassador will need to hit the ground running to engage with the many departments and agencies within the APS that work internationally on cyber issues to ensure they’re all singing from the same song sheet.

Pleasingly, the new strategy brings a focus to capacity building in our region. Such forward-leaning activities help to underpin almost the full gamut of international cyber issues, from confidence building and norm formation, to economic exchange, cyber security and incident response. If the staffing, subject matter expertise and infrastructure don’t exist in our neighbourhood, neither does effective international discourse, closing the digital divide or effective network protection.

Over the next four years, the government has allocated $6.7 million to sustain such work. This will be drawn from the government’s $230 million total cyber package. While it’s a significant improvement on DFAT’s existing shoestring budget for cyber work, it remains a modest figure, particularly when compared to the budgets of our key partners, such as the UK’s AU$14.3 million four year commitment to international cyber engagement and capacity building . Without a doubt, the budget allocation should continue to rise in order to keep pace with our lofty international ambitions.

The Cyber Ambassador will also have a key role to play in crafting Australia’s first public international cyber strategy, also announced by Turnbull yesterday. A good International Cyber Strategy will pick up where the new national strategy left off, by laying out a more detailed position on key international debates, presenting a carefully considered plan for international engagement, and integrating the private sector into our international strategic thinking. That won’t be an easy task by any stretch of the imagination.

The international focus of Australia’s new cyber strategy is encouraging. It presents a clear national position on our values and goals in cyberspace, and a roadmap for how we should go about reaching our destination. The challenge our new Cyber Ambassador will face is in implementing such a diverse international program on a slender budget.