Cyberspace & the lawCyber and international law in the 21st century

Published 25 May 2018

“Cyber space is not – and must never be – a lawless world. It is the U.K.’s view that when states and individuals engage in hostile cyber operations, they are governed by law just like activities in any other domain,” said the U.K. Attorney General Jeremy Wright, QC MP, on 23 May 2018, setting out, for the first time, the U.K.’s position on applying international law to cyberspace. “What this means is that hostile actors cannot take action by cyber means without consequence, both in peacetime and in times of conflict. States that are targeted by hostile cyber operations have the right to respond to those operations in accordance with the options lawfully available to them and that in this as in all things, all states are equal before the law.”

The U.K. Attorney General Jeremy Wright, QC MP, on 23 May 2018 set out the U.K.’s position on applying international law to cyberspace. This is the first time a government minister has set out the U.K. view on record.

Here is the transcript of his presentation:

I am particularly pleased to be speaking here, at Chatham House Royal Institute for International affairs, which has a longstanding record of engaging governments, the private sector and civil society in debate about the most significant and pressing developments in international affairs.

Today I want to talk about the importance of international law in cyber space and to emphasize that cyber space is an integral part of the rules based international order. That being so, it is the U.K.’s view that there are boundaries of acceptable state behavior in cyberspace, just as there are everywhere else.

One of the biggest challenges for international law is ensuring it keeps pace as the world changes. International law must remain relevant to the challenges of modern conflicts if it is to be respected, and as a result, play its critical role in ensuring certainty, peace and stability in the international order. If it is seen as irrelevant it will be ignored and that makes the world less safe.

Whilst the need to adapt to changing times is true of all law, international law is unusual – other types of law are found in statutes and in court judgments – but there are few of either in international law, instead there are treaties, and customary international law formed from the general and consistent practice of states acting out of a sense of obligation.

The necessity of international law keeping pace with the modern world underpinned my speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies on the modern law of self- defense in January 2017. In that speech, I set out how the law of self-defense must adapt to meet the particular demands of a world in which an armed attack is as likely to be inspired by something on the internet as it is to be instructed by someone in direct contact with the perpetrator, and where we can’t see such an attack coming in the way we once could.