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Visiting Fellow: Dr. Antonio Coco

Dr. Antonio Coco, Visiting Fellow at the Center for Technology, Strategy, and Sustainability (CTSS) at the Asia School of Business (ASB) 

The Center for Technology, Strategy, and Sustainability (CTSS) is glad to announce the completion of Dr. Antonio Coco’s time with us as a Visiting Fellow at the Asia School of Business (ASB)! 

A scholar in international law, Antonio is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Essex where he conducts research on the governance of cyberspace, as well as the use of information and communication technologies. We spoke to Antonio about the significance of his current projects, takeaways from his time at ASB, and challenges of regulating technology in the modern world. 

Tell us about your academic journey. What sparked your interest for the field that you’re in? 

I’ve always been fascinated by how the actions of states impact the life of individuals. I think that when I started studying law, I was not really interested in micro issues of legal relations between people, but I was really attracted by the bigger picture: What governments do with each other or against each other, and how it impacts the life of individuals. I had a love for thinking beyond borders, not just within the limits of my country. 

I fell in love with international law when I pursued my LLM in International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights after an internship at the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. The internship was my first time really dealing with adjudication of the international law of armed conflict with lawyers from all over the world working together, showing me the potential for these state-created rules to protect the interests of human beings, particularly in situations of emergencies like conflicts and natural disasters, as well as the rights of individuals at home against their governments. This humanitarian spirit pushed me in my studies even once I finished my LLM. Eventually, I completed a Ph.D. in the field of international criminal law. 

It seems like there’s quite a large gap between international criminal law and your current research on technology regulation. How did you arrive at your current research focus? 

My academic background started with a distinct expertise in international criminal law, human rights and the law of armed conflict. I became more of a generalist when I took a job teaching public international law at Oxford University. I started looking beyond specific fields of international law to examine the actual processes for how law comes into existence: How rules (for instance, those enshrined in treaties) are made between states, and how we assess responsibility for violations of international law. Simultaneously, issues of technology and cyberspace were gaining traction. I started researching how international law applies to the development, use and governance of new technologies, particularly cyberspace and artificial intelligence.

What are you working on now? 

Now, I primarily deal with new technologies. I worked for two or three years mostly on cyberspace, and started looking more into artificial intelligence in the past year. My research has primarily focused on two things: First, the obligation of states to exercise due diligence in preventing malicious actors from using information infrastructure to cause harm and, second, how rules of international law are actually made. The research that I conducted and presented at ASB concerned this second strand, and looked at how states come together to make rules for the governance and use of cyberspace and artificial intelligence. 

What did you work on during your time at CTSS? 

During my time as a Visiting Fellow, I assessed the ways in which multi-stakeholder initiatives affect how information and communication technologies are developed, used, and governed internationally. As states, industry representatives, civil society, non-governmental organisations, and academic institutions become more proactive in contributing to making law related to new technology, initiatives led by non-state entities have emerged to negotiate and produce non-binding documents that indicate the state of the law in the field. 

My research compared these initiatives to assess their strengths, weaknesses, and what have they achieved. What are they achieving? In particular, I’ve looked into two initiatives. The first is the Oxford Process on International Law Protections in Cyberspace, a series of meetings on how international law applies in cyberspace, that gathered inputs from governments, tech companies, civil society, and academic institutions from various nationalities and continents. The aim was to explore the state of the law in areas of pressing global concern, possibly producing short statements restating internationally agreed-upon rules, including on the protection of healthcare systems against malicious cyber operations, vaccine research during the pandemic, foreign electoral interference, ransomware operations, misinformation and disinformation. 

The second initiative was the Tallinn Manuals, an academic initiative based at the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence . The first manual looked at how the law of armed conflict can be applied to cyber operations. Can rules that were conceived for kinetic weapons apply to cyber operations? The second Manual expanded its scope to international law applicable in peacetime. The Manuals are a primarily academic endeavour that focuses on lex lata, i.e. the law as it is, without trying to propose new rules. 

The research I presented was about the merits and limits of these projects. These initiatives clarify rules that already exist, with no ability to enforce or bind states and citizens into following them. What is their value, then? 

Could you summarise your findings? 

Firstly, I submit that these initiatives may function as a catalyst to stimulate states into taking ownership of lawmaking. When states see that non-state entities are taking a position in certain issues, they become more proactive in making clear their own position through publishing papers and issuing official government positions to reclaim ownership of law-making processes. Secondly, these initiatives provide an easily accessible rulebook for government legal advisors or other lawyers to refer to. When needed, they can look at the outputs of these initiatives led by reputable institutions and academics. Thirdly, projects like the Oxford Process and Tallinn Manuals can be said to constitute capacity-building initiatives, since they facilitate dialogue and collaboration between stakeholders ranging from academics to civil society to state actors and corporations. They contribute to setting agreed terminology and create knowledge which enriches the understanding of these issues. 

Why did you choose to come to ASB? 

There are many reasons for me choosing ASB, but the main reason is that ASB has a distinct focus of research on technology and how technology impacts life, which aligns very well with my own research. 

I was aware that ASB had a Center for Technology, Sustainability and Strategy, which was very appealing to me because I aim to conduct research that has a concrete impact in the world. A lot of academic research can feel very abstract, work that tends to exist only as intellectual exercise. I wasn’t interested in that. I wanted something that’s helpful, applied research that could make a difference. I knew that here at ASB, I would get the chance to exchange views with people that think in those pragmatic terms. At the same time, I knew that the research being done here was of a certain caliber that I wouldn’t have been able to find elsewhere. 

Finally, of course, there is the fact that ASB is in Malaysia – fantastic Malaysian food was an added bonus! 

How did your academic fellowship at ASB help you develop your research? 

I was very happy with the discussions and welcoming attitudes of everyone that I have met here at ASB. The most beneficial thing for me was the interdisciplinary approach that ASB takes to its research and learning. During my time here, I found perspectives that come from outside the law. Normally, I only interact with other lawyers. This insularity can be constraining, because you tend to then speak always in the same terms without new perspectives. At ASB, it was so helpful to speak to people from other disciplines and receive questions from people who are non-lawyers. Professor Michael Frese came to my presentation and asked very insightful questions that really made me reconsider the way I should say and write things for my audience that goes beyond lawyers. How do I make sure that whatever I say is accessible and impactful? That’s the kind of practical focus that I am glad to take away from my time here. 

What would be your primary recommendation for people working on tech policy? 

My primary recommendation would be to be pragmatic. Try to start the conversation from low hanging fruits — that are easy to agree on, then go from there to build more ambitious policies. Cooperation with other entities often starts from very basic things. If one starts immediately with an exceedingly ambitious plan, then this prevents any sort of agreement. Start small, and this will incrementally add up to something practical, actionable, and scalable. 

I think that in the general public, there is a false sense that there is no law at all to govern technological developments, simply because a lot of the technology we have these days is completely new. This assumption is almost never the case. Usually, there are rules that just need to be rediscovered and reinterpreted, for their scope of application to be expanded or adapted. In rare cases, the solution may not exist, which is when new rules are necessary. But in general, we can always start from something that we already have. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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