Transatlantic Take

The EU Needs Partners like Brazil for a Free, Open, and Secure Cyberspace

Laura Groenendaal
Hannes Ebert
4 min read
Photo Credit: Nook Hok / Shutterstock
As daily life becomes more digitalized, cybersecurity increasingly comes to the forefront of international relations.

As daily life becomes more digitalized, cybersecurity increasingly comes to the forefront of international relations. Increased digital connectedness makes states more vulnerable to ever more sophisticated cyber threats from disinformation and cybercrime to cyber warfare. The cross-border nature of most cyber operations requires international cooperation or cyber diplomacy between states. But so far there has been a failure to agree on a global framework of rules for responsible state behavior in cyberspace. Most fundamentally, this is the result of great-power rivalry and polarization between one camp led by China and Russia promoting strong state controls, and another led by the United States defending free data flows.

The EU’s objectives in this field include the promotion of an open and free Internet, the adoption of norms for responsible state behavior, the protection of human rights, capacity building, and the application of existing international law in cyberspace. Since the publication of its 2013 Cyber Security Strategy, it has engaged in cyber dialogues with strategic partners, ranging from like-minded states such as Japan, South Korea, and the United States to “contesting states” like China and countries positioned between these two blocs such as Brazil and India.

If the EU wants to prevent a digital “Wild West,” it needs the likes of Brazil.

If the EU wants to prevent a digital “Wild West,” it needs the likes of Brazil, with the latest edition of their Cyber Dialogue taking place on February 20 in Brussels. As our recent study illustrates, the country’s positioning as a broker in the debate on global internet governance and its influence in multilateral bodies make it a particularly important ally for the EU in negotiations on cybersecurity.

Swing-State Brazil

Brazil seeks to reconcile the divergent positions of China and Russia on the one hand and the United States on the other. As a swing state between these two blocs, it has the potential to influence the course of international negotiations on cyberspace, punching above its economic weight. Brazil has already played a pivotal role in multilateral negotiations where it presented itself as leader of the Global South. It chairs the latest United Nations Group of Governmental Experts (2019–2021) that discusses the application of international law in cyberspace. Following the 2013 revelations by Edward Snowden, the country became a regional and global frontrunner for the promotion of privacy rights, inclusiveness, and accountability in cyberspace within global governance institutions such as NetMundial and the Internet Governance Forum.

Brazil’s posture is expected to continue under President Jair Bolsonaro. His administration has drawn closer to the United States in general, but it remains cautious not to alienate China and Russia. Therefore, it remains a strong interest for the EU to cooperate with Brazil in multilateral negotiations on Internet governance and the application of international law in cyberspace. Given that Bolsonaro fiercely opposed Brazil’s Internet Bill of Rights when he was a member of parliament, observers predict a shift in the country’s cyber diplomacy from a focus on “soft” issues such as data-privacy rights and multistakeholder participation in Internet governance to one on “hard” cybersecurity. This could create new opportunities for EU-Brazil cooperation on cyber resilience, the protection of critical infrastructure, and responses to cyberattacks. But working together on “softer” issues will likely become more challenging, as already indicated by the recent rise in digital surveillance and repression and a growing reluctance to promote regional integration and liberal values in Brazil and Europe.

Prospects for Cooperation

Despite these challenges, the EU and Brazil need each other to build a free, open, and secure cyberspace. As strategic partners since 2007 and meeting in their Cyber Dialogues since 2017, they have made considerable progress cooperating in the fields of science and technology, Internet governance, and cybercrime. They have a particularly strong interest in addressing international cybercrime together. Brazil consistently ranks among the worst affected countries by this problem, and last December it agreed to initiate the process to accede to the Council of Europe’s Convention on Cybercrime, the only binding instrument on the matter. This opens the door for further cooperation in this field.

The latest instalment of the EU-Brazil Cyber Dialogue offers both sides the opportunity to build on these achievements to advance their cooperation on security in cyberspace, information sharing and joint capacity building, and the application of international law in cyberspace. Using this opportunity will help to build trust between two parties that is critical for advancing norms of responsible state behavior and a free, open, and secure cyberspace.