Earlier this morning, the 193 member states of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations’ (UN) tech agency and oldest institution, elected as Secretary-General the American candidate Doreen Bogdan-Martin, the first-ever woman to head the ITU. Bogdan-Martin is the current head of the ITU’s development bureau, ITU-D. Her now-former opponent, Russian candidate Rashid Ismailov, is president of Russian telecom VimpelCom, former deputy minister of Russia’s Ministry of Communications, and a former executive at Chinese telecom company Huawei. The current Secretary-General is Houlin Zhao, a Chinese citizen who has held the position since 2014.1Although several candidates, representing different countries, could theoretically run at once, the US and Russian governments were the only ones to throw a candidate’s hat in the ring.
Many challenges to an open and global internet lie ahead, and the US win should provide a sigh of relief to the internet community. Nonetheless, the way the election for the ITU’s leadership unfolded underscores how internet governance processes, international internet policymaking, and internet standards creation are becoming increasingly political issues. In an unprecedented move, for instance, both US President Joe Biden and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken posted messages in support of the US candidate.
For the United States, it was evident that this election was a foreign policy issue—and rightly so. Over the years, the Russian and Chinese governments have grown closer in pushing for a state-controlled vision of internet governance, and both have long wished to see the UN play a central role in the management of the internet. Their vision is gaining traction, especially among African countries, which have historically felt excluded from internet governance conversations and see the ITU as one of the few places they can wield political power. In addition, Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine might have strained Russia’s relationship with the West, but for many other parts of the world, it remains business as usual.
At the center of the election, therefore, was indeed the future role of the ITU in governing the internet. The organization currently has little involvement, but some governments maintain an interest in the ITU becoming more central to the process. Presently, internet governance is largely the purview of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), a nonprofit, multi-stakeholder internet standards-setting body, and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a nonprofit that, along with five regional internet registries, manages domain names and internet protocol (IP) addresses globally. This governance system, though imperfect, works because it is agile, inclusive of industry and civil society, and not directly subject to intergovernmental negotiations and maneuvering. It has worked based on a relatively common objective among these institutions: an open, global, and interoperable internet.
However, not every country buys into this system. A number of countries, including Russia, China, and some in both Africa and the Asia-Pacific, look at the ITU as a more appropriate institution to manage the internet. Its broad development agenda has allowed the organization to become increasingly active on issues as wide-ranging as cybersecurity, connectivity, cybercrime, IP number allocation, and network management. At the same time, for decades, the Chinese government and the Russian government have both pushed for the ITU to have a greater role in governing the internet, from suggesting that the ITU literally take over ICANN to pushing for internet standards-setting to move to the ITU almost entirely. The United States, Japan, Australia, Germany, South Korea, and other open-internet supporters have managed to push back, but the tides may be shifting. More governments are adopting a “cyber sovereignty” approach that seeks to increase their perceived decision-making power or increase government surveillance online (or both).
The stakes in the election, therefore, were high. A Russian-led, China-friendly ITU would, most likely, have sought more control over the internet; and from Moscow and Beijing’s past efforts, standards development is one of the likeliest routes. The Chinese government already knows this and has been working towards such a goal with its “New IP,” a proposal that seeks to centralize core functions of networking. The proposal has persisted in the ITU’s study groups for the past two years, and it has recently moved to another study group dealing with issues of the environment. Beijing has even renamed the standard “IPv6+” to repackage the same, top-down protocol proposal as merely a technological advancement. In a similar vein, China, at another study group, submitted a proposal for the standardization of the “metaverse.” In such a volatile environment, Ismailov’s victory would increase the likelihood of passage of government-controlling-internet proposals at the ITU.
Heavy government involvement in standards setting with Russia at the ITU’s helm would be catastrophic for the internet. Presently, internet standards follow an open, participatory process and are voluntarily adopted on a global level; they serve as the building blocks for products and services targeted to meet the needs of consumers and the market. Now, try to imagine 193 different states negotiating standards about, say, privacy or security; the pace and the formality of an organization like the ITU cannot support the technical specificity and informality that is required by internet standards setting. Not to mention, the same issues that have plagued UN cyber norms discussions will become more prominent in the ITU: the Russian and Chinese government pushing for an expansive definition of terms like “information security” or “cybercrime” that allow them to promote censorship and surveillance under the guise of international security.
In order, therefore, to preserve an internet that is relatively open and globally connected while navigating the processes and politics at play, the ITU needed a leader who understands the value of collaboration and bottom-up coordination when it comes to the internet. The United States can deliver on this; Russia cannot.
For Russia, the UN has always been a core part of its internet governance strategy. Although its pushes over the last thirty-or-so years for more UN involvement were unsuccessful, in 2019, Russia achieved an unexpected win when it managed to get the votes for a cybercrime treaty at the UN General Assembly. The Kremlin’s tech envoy celebrated this as a significant win and a sign of Russia’s influence in the UN. For Moscow, this moves a step closer to a multipolar world in which the Russian government takes a more central role. The US victory means Russia doesn’t yet have the votes to continue on this trajectory.
Even with Bogdan-Martin prevailing, it will be a rough road ahead to maintain an ITU that respects existing internet processes and institutions, while also trying to drive genuine progress in areas like internet development and capacity-building (which Bogdan-Martin presently leads at the ITU). Beijing and Moscow will not sit on the sidelines, as the past decades have shown. Not having a voting bloc to pass resolutions has not stopped the Chinese and Russian governments from “flooding the zone” with proposals before. But without a doubt, navigating a rough road with a US leader at the helm, experienced in internet development and a believer in an open internet, is better than cutting the brakes entirely.
Konstantinos Komaitis (@kkomaitis) is an internet policy expert and author.
The Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative, under the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), works at the nexus of geopolitics and cybersecurity to craft strategies to help shape the conduct of statecraft and to better inform and secure users of technology.