What Is at Stake in the Upcoming ITU Secretary General Election

September 21, 2022
Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative (GMF Digital)
8 min read
Photo credit: EQRoy / Shutterstock.com
At the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union (ITU) Plenipotentiary Conference from September 26 through October 14 in Bucharest, Romania, the organization’s 193 member countries will elect a new secretary general and other senior officials.

They will also set its policy goals for the next four years. While the ITU may be little-known to the general public, the outcome of the election for secretary general between American and Russian candidates illustrates growing geopolitical fault lines with far-reaching consequences for the future of the Internet.

What Is the ITU?

The almost 160-year-old ITU decides on issues relating to radio spectrum allocation, global technical standards for information and communication networks, digital inclusion in underserved communities, and more. The Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R) focuses on ensuring fair and open radio systems, including mobile services, emergency telecoms, meteorology, and global positioning systems. It also manages spectrum technology. The Telecommunication Standardization Sector (ITU-T) is responsible for setting international standards on issues such as Internet connectivity and 5G technology. The Telecommunication Development Sector (ITU-D) provides technology training and capacity-building to countries in the Global South on topics such as broadband and cybersecurity.

The ITU does not set Internet standards. Internet standards and governance have traditionally been set by multistakeholder organizations, such as the Internet Engineering Task Force, in which technologists, companies, civil society, and governments reach consensus.

Who Are the Candidates?

The two candidates for the position of secretary general are the current ITU-D director and American, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, and a former Huawei executive and Russian official, Rashid Ismailov.

Bogdan-Martin joined the ITU in 1994. She created the body’s Global Symposium for Regulators, which brings together heads of national telecommunications authorities to cooperate on regulatory issues, and the Youth Strategy and EQUALS Global programs, and she opened the ITU Liaison Office to the United Nations in New York and the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development, which advocates for universal broadband connectivity. If elected, she would be the first woman to lead the agency.

Ismailov was deputy minister in Russia’s Ministry of Telecom and Mass Communication, whose portfolio includes Roskomnadzor, the state media and telecom regulator. He has held executive posts at major tech and telecommunications firms, including Huawei, which the United States barred from dealing with US critical infrastructure due to national security concerns.

What Is at Stake?

Russia and China are seeking to move Internet governance away from a multistakeholder model, in which design follows a bottom-up process. Instead, they prefer that the multilateral ITU should govern the Internet, providing more power to the governments of its member states, allowing design and control of the Internet to be top-down within countries.

The election of the ITU secretary general is another beachhead in the emerging contest between authoritarians and democracies over the future of the Internet. It pits two fundamentally opposed visions of the Internet against one another. The Biden administration has trumpeted its support for an “open, free, global, interoperable, reliable and secure internet,” as illustrated by the recent Declaration for the Future of the Internet, signed by over 60 countries. Bogdan-Martin cited her commitment to these values in her nomination speech. Russia has taken a sharp turn toward restricting the free flow of information and advancing a “sovereign Internet” view, supported by China, whereby governments are given greater leeway to control the flow of information into and within their country’s borders—what has been called “digital authoritarianism.”

Which side prevails will go a long way toward determining what the Internet and global telecommunications infrastructure of tomorrow look like: whether they follow the United States’ and Europe’s free, open model or Russia’s and China’s sovereign Internet approach.

The Push for Top-down National Control of the Internet

Russian and Chinese efforts to use the UN to rewire the Internet and give individual countries more control over information flows has picked up steam over recent years.

China introduced “New IP,” a proposal calling for the ITU to “shoulder the responsibility of a top-down design for the future network”—the opposite of the Internet’s founding vision as a distributed, permissionless network. The proposal argued that the TCP/IP infrastructure that underpins global networks is unstable and insufficient to meet the requirements of the digital world by 2040, including for self-driving cars, the Internet of Things, and holographic teleportation. New IP proposed an “object identifier resolution system” to replace the current Domain Name System. During its presentation at the ITU, according to a source who was present, Huawei also made it clear that New IP would contain a central point capable of effectively cutting off communication to or from a particular address. The source described this feature as a “fundamental departure” from the current network model, which acts as an “agnostic postman that simply moves boxes around.”

China has also attempted to leverage the ITU to advance Standards 2035— which the National Institute of Standards and Technology calls a “blueprint for China’s government and leading technology companies to set global standards for emerging technologies in areas such as artificial intelligence and advanced communications technology”—by sending the largest delegations to ITU study groups and flooding them with proposed specifications and contributions.

In 2019, Russia succeeded in gaining agreement at the UN to launch a new “cybercrime treaty” circumventing the established systems for negotiating cybersecurity norms at the UN. The treaty—supported by China, along with Belarus, Cambodia, Iran, Myanmar, Nicaragua, North Korea, and Venezuela—raised concerns about potential repression due to the vague definitions of cybercrime used by each of the cosponsoring governments. Russia defines cybersecurity to include disagreement with the government, reflected in new laws and regulations that increase surveillance, outlaw accurate reporting, and throttle access to content like the 2019 Sovereign Internet Law. Cambodia’s “cybercrime law” also threatens increased surveillance of users and restrictions on free expression and privacy. The UN treaty proposal is vague about how law enforcement should gain access to data for investigations and the role of government in regulating the Internet. It could set the standard for repressive new laws around the world and increase pressure for law enforcement to share personal data across borders without due-process protections. Human Rights Watch warns the treaty “risks legitimizing abusive practices and could be used as an excuse to silence government critics and undermine privacy in many countries.”

In a June 2021 joint statement, China and Russia reiterated their support for a sovereign Internet and affirmed “their unity on issues related to Internet governance, which include ensuring that all states have equal rights to participate in global-network governance, increasing their role in this process and preserving the sovereign right of states to regulate the national segment of the Internet.” This amounts to a resolution to leverage control over bodies like the ITU to splinter the global Internet into separate, state-dominated silos.

Even as China is backing the Russian candidate, it is also working to staff posts beneath the secretary general level, which would give it greater influence at the committee level where complex technical decisions are made.

What Is Next?

The United States is now fully engaged in what GMF Digital calls a new “Digital Doctrine,” recognizing that its adversaries and competitors are attempting to change the rules of the game to reduce the openness of the Internet. They exploit US openness to launch cyberattacks and information operations, while the United States works to preserve its national interests as well as the principles of an “open, free, global, interoperable, reliable, and secure Internet.”

The United States has already engaged in successful attempts to push back. The New IP proposal was defeated in the December 2020 plenary session of two ITU study groups, and a decision was made to stop discussing the proposal until March 2022, a departure from convention at the ITU, which generally operates through consensus. Russian candidates were defeated in elections for the ITU’s Standardization Sector working group chair and vice chair positions after the Ukraine invasion. Russia can still make contributions as a member state but will be left out of leadership and setting the agenda.

In response to China’s Standards 2035, the US-EU Technology and Trade Council (TTC) is developing a common approach to setting standards for emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence. The United States and EU are ready to push back against Chinese influence, creating a Strategic Standardization Information Mechanism allowing them to proactively shape standards-setting. They are also cooperating on financing frameworks to enable third countries to purchase technology from trusted vendors.

Washington and Brussels will likely announce at least two pilot projects associated with a transatlantic taskforce to leverage Western development financing to build telecom infrastructure in emerging economies. The goal, announced in May during the previous TTC meeting, is to give third-party countries an ability to pay for more costly equipment than they can get from Chinese players like Huawei. The US Agency for International Development has launched its Digital Strategy to enhance open and secure digital access.

In the runup to the ITU election, the United States has engaged in a full-steam advocacy effort to win other countries’ support with a combination of carrots and sticks. The defeat of Russian candidates at the working group level earlier this year is a good sign that the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has diminished support for Russia at the ITU. However, the election is conducted by secret ballot and Russia is aggressively lobbying Global South countries, particularly in Africa, to support Ismailov’s candidacy. The Biden administration has deployed Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Federal Communications Commission Chair Jessica Rosenworcel, and Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield to make the case for Bogdan-Martin. And it appears to have traded support for the EU’s preferred candidate for deputy secretary general, the Lithuanian former telecom official Tomas Lamanauskas, for Europe’s backing at the top of the ticket.

The ITU’s member states will vote in the first two weeks of the conference, with the election’s outcome far from a foregone conclusion. Democracies must work together in the ITU and other standards-setting organizations to ensure that Internet governance and design remain free of overt national control. Every space must be contested and won to counter the rising tide of digital authoritarianism—including in Bucharest—in order to preserve a free and open Internet.