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Ronald J. Deibert, Nart Villeneuve and Greg Walton discovered the spying operation they dubbed GhostNet. They are seen at the Munk Centre on March 29 2009. (JENNIFER ROBERTS/JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Ronald J. Deibert, Nart Villeneuve and Greg Walton discovered the spying operation they dubbed GhostNet. They are seen at the Munk Centre on March 29 2009. (JENNIFER ROBERTS/JENNIFER ROBERTS FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

The Internet needs peacekeepers. Is Canada ready? Add to ...

That's perhaps why Helen McDonald, an assistant deputy minister with Industry Canada and Canada's representative at the ITU's Guadalajara conference, issued what was seen as a relatively strong-worded objection to the Russian proposal.

"The Union must avoid the temptation to dilute its impact by seeking authority over issues that are being addressed appropriately by other organizations," Ms. McDonald said, according to a transcript.

What remains to be seen, however, is how steadfastly Canada is prepared to hold its position, as nations such as China and Russia push for greater control of the Internet.

Ultimately, what's at stake in battles such as those between ICANN and the ITU is what Mr. Rohozinski describes as the "Balkanization of the Internet." Should countries such as China not get their way when it comes to Internet governance -- and, indeed, even if they do -- Internet users in Canada and around the world face the prospect of the Internet being bordered up along real-world geographic lines.

The potential implications are profound: the introduction of tariffs for viewing content in certain jurisdictions; the imposition of strict rules for major technology companies wishing to operate in certain countries -- something RIM recently experienced in India and the Middle East, and that Google has grappled with in China. For a country like Canada, which is built on a multicultural model that renders vital the ability of citizens around the world to communicate with one another, Mr. Rohozinski argues such an outcome would be disastrous.

"What Canada needs to recognize is that this country has benefited immensely from cyberspace," he says. "Our values are propagated through cyberspace."

IN LATE OCTOBER, Mr. Villeneuve of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto began trying to take down the Koobface network. [ Read Ron Deibert and Rafal Rohozinski's op-ed on trying to crack the Koobface code]

It was slow and somewhat fruitless work. Without a robust mechanism in place for dealing with such networks - for example, a standard means of reporting criminal activity in cyberspace - Mr. Villeneuve was forced to contact individual Internet service providers and Web sites around the globe, informing each one about the malicious traffic that had been found on the networks. The list of Web sites that had at one time or another been compromised was vast and widespread -- at one point, the Web site of the attorney general of Ontario had been compromised, among many, many others.

From his research, Mr. Villeneuve has collected an impressive amount of information about Koobface, including the cell phone numbers of its authors in Russia. However, he is not optimistic about the chances of shutting it down.

For one thing, the network is highly decentralized, and it would take the efforts of multiple companies and law enforcement agencies in at least three countries to shut down the main command and control infrastructure. Even then, short of arrest, there's nothing stopping the Koobface authors from simply setting up shop elsewhere in the world.

But perhaps the most frightening aspect of Koobface and other such networks is just how difficult it is to prove a crime has taken place. Police investigators usually need a victim to prove it, and in the case of Koobface, individual users were essentially being robbed of nothing, simply misdirected. If anything, the Koobface authors were robbing Internet advertising companies, but only to the tune of fractions of a penny per click. Even though the total amount collected was in the millions, the individual thefts were tiny.

It is those attributes -- the ability to control computers around the globe, to reach across borders with ease, to operate in manner that makes prosecution extraordinarily difficult -- that make networks such as Koobface the future of digital crime, corporate espionage and even state warfare. Indeed, Mr. Villeneuve is unsure Koobface will ever be fully shut down, or if the legislation and will exist to prosecute its authors.

"Is what's going on here unethical? Definitely," he says. But is it a crime that any current law can stop? "I'm not sure."

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