Debate Hall or Echo Chamber: Do Cyber Norms Proposals Work?

32 Pages Posted: 7 Jan 2022 Last revised: 8 Aug 2022

Date Written: September 2, 2020


A substantial academic literature explains how norms of appropriate behavior emerge and diffuse, with implications for the future of cyber conflict governance. After more than twenty years of negotiations, however, consensus remains elusive. Where, if anywhere, have state-led cyber norms efforts succeeded? Leveraging an original dataset, this paper provides some of the first empirical traction on this question. Contrary to conventional wisdom that states are notoriously tight-lipped about how they think law and norms should apply to new domains, I catalog more than 10,000 crossnational government expressions about how cyber law and norms apply (collectively more than 10 million words) since 1998. Unsupervised computational techniques are used to provide some of the first evidence about the extent to which states have been talking to or past one another on core issues. The findings suggest that there has been surprising convergence, but always not on the issues or in the direction dominant theory would predict. Moreover, increasingly broad participation seems to suggest that states recognize their shared interest in stabilizing the cyber domain, although most-needed type of engagement -- direct engagement between the US, Russia, and China -- is also least prevalent. By implication, the prospects for cyber norms are neither as promising, nor as dire, as divided commentary tends to predict. Future research can use this dataset to develop new theories about norm emergence, persuasion, diffusion, and internalization.

Keywords: cyber, text analysis, international law, GGE, UNGGE

Suggested Citation

Canfil, Justin Key, Debate Hall or Echo Chamber: Do Cyber Norms Proposals Work? (September 2, 2020). Available at SSRN:

Justin Key Canfil (Contact Author)

Harvard Kennedy School

79 JFK Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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