"Netwar": The Unwelcome Militarization of the Internet has Arrived

Privacy and Security, Cloud Computing and Networks, the Internet, and Cloud Computing

Article Snapshot


Jonathan Zittrain


Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 73, No. 5, pp. 300-304, 2017


Once, fear of "cyberwar" was exaggerated. Today, governments and the military control networks for surveillance and use platforms like Facebook and Twitter for propaganda campaigns. These campaigns challenge the firms whose networks are targeted.

Policy Relevance

Governments should prepare to defend platforms manipulated by foreign states.

Main Points

  • "Cyberwar" refers to the conduct of a military operation by disrupting or destroying information and communications systems trying to learn about an adversary while keeping the adversary ignorant.
  • "Netwar" refers to the use of information on a grand scale to manipulate a target population, and may involve propaganda, psychological campaigns, interference with the media, infiltration of networks and databases, and use of networks to promote dissent.
  • During the 1990s, the Internet evolved as a result of the actions of hobbyists and commercial firms, without consideration of how its structure might advantage or disadvantage a particular government.
  • Information technology enabled some types of freedom, and disadvantaged others, but the technology and its effects change quickly.
  • Major governments are well positioned to insist on changes to software or hardware deployed by private firms and have the resources to engage in sustained campaigns.
  • Recently, NATO, the United States Defense Department, and the military have recognized the cyber realm as a domain of war, and some are working on cyberdefenses; however, much of the Internet's natural resistance to attack is due to loose affiliations of experts.
  • Google, Facebook, and Twitter employ expert security teams but platform security teams do not address the quality and source of information distributed through the platform; observers are just beginning to understand the impact of information distributed over these platforms and how governments influence this information.
  • When a government disrupts or manipulates information sent over private platforms, the government of the targeted population should defend the platform; each country should clarify what it will not tolerate from others.
  • For many years, the digital space seemed new and different, but it is now in danger of being warped by the power of traditional states.


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