What follows is the abstract that I have submitted for this year’s Association of Internet Researchers Conference, AOIR 10.0, Internet:Critical.


As early as the 1990s, both military professionals and civilian “defense intellectuals” in the United States began to speculate about the possibilities for war to be waged or terrorism conducted in or through cyberspace.  While interest in these issues continued throughout the last decade, the recent spate of cyber-attacks accompanying the August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, combined with ongoing and controversial attempts by the U.S. Air Force to set up a “Cyber Command,” have led to increased discussion of both what constitutes “cyberwar” and “cyberterrorism,” as well as appropriate responses to such acts.  As such, this paper will critically examine the development of cyberwar discourse within the U.S. defense establishment over the last ten years, paying special attention to articulations of the online/offline relationship in that discourse.

In particular, it will point to a recent and disturbing relaxation of standards in cyberwar discourse over what constitutes “war” or “terrorism.”  Early, speculative theories of cyberwar/terrorism, such as that offered by computer scientist Dorothy Denning, posited that to be considered acts of terrorism or warfare, malicious acts in cyberspace must lead to real-world, offline impacts such as physical damage or loss of life.  Otherwise, such acts were to be considered a form of online activism or “hacktivism” in cases such as defacement or denial of service attacks, or espionage in cases of stolen information.  But while recent cases such as the 2008 Russia-Georgia war indicate that defacement, denial of service, and information theft still constitute the main techniques for cyber attacks, this paper will describe how some theorists and policymakers have begun to drop the requirement for real-world, offline impacts before such acts are considered acts of war or terrorism, thus increasing the likelihood that in the future such acts could be met with the use of violence in the form of a traditional military response.  Thus, while it acknowledges that the maintenance of the online/offline separation is generally problematic for those engaged in critical Internet research, it also argues that in the case of cyberwar discourse, the blurring of the online/offline boundary constitutes a disturbing and dangerous development that should be resisted.