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Information Operations under International Law

Updated: Dec 13, 2022

By: Tsvetelina van Benthem, Talita Dias, and Duncan B. Hollis



An information operation or activity (IO) can be defined as the deployment of digital resources for cognitive purposes to change or reinforce attitudes or behaviors of the targeted audience in ways that align with the authors’ interests. While not a new phenomenon, these operations have become increasingly prominent and pervasive in today’s digital age, a trend that the ongoing war in Ukraine and the use of the internet for terrorist purposes tragically demonstrate. Against this backdrop, this Article critically assesses the existing international legal framework applicable to IOs.

It makes three overarching claims. First, IOs can cause real and tangible harms to individual and state interests protected by international law. To prevent and remedy such harms, a robust and comprehensive legal framework constraining the use of IOs by both state and non-state actors becomes a necessity. Second, existing international law regulates IOs through a system of prohibitions, permissions, and requirements. In particular, the Article analyzes the extent to which international human rights law, the principles of non intervention and sovereignty, and due diligence obligations apply to state and non-state uses of IOs. Third, the fact that existing international law captures some of the harms of IOs does not mean that this framework is sufficient or adequate.

In fact, we argue that, in their current form, international rules on IOs are only partially effective given challenges relating to their (i) application, (ii) orientation, (iii) complexity, and (iv) enforcement in the context of information and communications technologies. While accepting that international law, both conventional and customary, already contains important protections against harmful IOs, our analysis aims to reignite a much-needed discussion of the merits and shortcomings that adopting a new regime tailored to IOs might produce.

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