Amid this burgeoning activity, however, one thing is missing. There is little consensus on what exactly “interference” is, and how the term “interference” is similar or different from other related concepts, such as “influence.” The lack of a common framing of “interference” across Europe can delay or complicate lawmakers’ initiatives and muddy civil society’s efforts to build awareness and rally opposition against incursions into democratic processes.
Defining interference comes with risk. Policymakers can create a definition that is either too broad,6 which could inhibit the freedom of expression or put undue burdens on political participation, or one that is too narrow to cover certain forms of malign behavior in a quickly evolving field, inhibiting democracies from protecting themselves because an attack does not “fit” within said definition. Establishing a definition that merely catalogues commonly-used tactics (for example: cyber-attacks, disinformation, economic coercion, and malign finance) would also prove inadequate because any definition of interference should be flexible enough to capture new technologies and approaches. Moreover, a list of tactics fails to explain the underlying factors driving interference activities.
To contribute to the definition-setting debate, this paper addresses why a definition could be helpful for countering interference, lays out the state of play in the EU on defining interference, provides a review of existing government and academic definitions related to interference, and discusses the concept of legality and interference. Finally, this paper suggests two core criteria to assist in the determination of whether any given activity constitutes interference: (i) intent (including the factors of timing, coordination of behavior, and scale of effects), and (ii) transparency. An act does not need to match both criteria to constitute interference, but they are certainly mutually reinforcing.