The campaign to elect the next secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union has entered its final stretch, with UN member states meeting this week in Bucharest, Romania, to vote between candidates backed by Russia and those backed from the United States vying for the top spot .
The ITU is the United Nations body responsible for setting standards for telecommunications, radio, satellite, and information and communication technologies. A major technical institution that most people have never heard of, the ITU has emerged in recent years at the center of geostrategic competition over Russia- and China-led efforts to increase nation-state control over the Internet.
While the ITU sets the standards that enable global connectivity, the Internet itself is governed by a multi-stakeholder approach, created by the United States in the early days of the Internet as an intentionally decentralized governance network placing nation states, industry, civil society, individuals and other groups on a relatively equal footing. By design, the multi-stakeholder approach prevents any group, including nation states, from exercising control, thus creating the free and open global internet as we have traditionally known it.
If the Russian-backed candidate wins the vote, it will be seen as a de facto endorsement of the Russian (and Chinese) view of the internet.
Campaign for next Secretary-General at ITU Plenipotentiary 2022 is important because Russia cast vote for member states on broadening ITU’s mandate to bring internet governance into multilateral system rather than multi-stakeholder model which makes it easier for nation states to exercise sovereign control over the internet. If the Russian-backed candidate wins the vote, it will be seen as a de facto endorsement of the Russian (and Chinese) view of the internet.
The candidate for the election is Rashid Ismailov, former Russian deputy minister for telecommunications and mass communications from 2014 to 2018, and is currently the president of VimpelCom, a large Russian telecommunications provider. He is a former senior executive of Huawei, Nokia and Ericsson. ITU candidates are applying as individuals and staff are sworn not to seek or accept instructions or assistance from any government. States hold votes in elections, however, and Moscow has made clear it supports Ismailov’s campaign platform. Russia has repeatedly called for the idea that governments should have more sovereign control over the internet and that decision-making on internet governance should go to the ITU. The Russian government has released multiple statements outlining its priority in getting Ismailov elected to the ITU.
The other candidate in the elections Doreen Bogdan-Martin, a US citizen, is a veteran of the ITU for almost thirty years who, if elected, would become the first woman to lead the UN body. Currently director of the ITU Development Office, she is one of the most qualified candidates ever to apply for the post. Bogdan-Martin led a professional and intelligent campaign, focused on increasing digital connectivity, inclusion, diversity and development. US President Joe Biden and the US government have given their weight to Bogdan-Martins’ candidacy.
The controversy over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine isn’t necessarily hurting Ismailov’s chances of winning the election that will decide the future of the global internet. It will be a close race, and for a variety of reasons there is a strong chance Ismailov will win, even as the war in Ukraine goes from bad to worse for the Kremlin.
There is the inconvenient truth that even without this geopolitical pressure, many countries will eventually support Russia at the ITU.
First, Russia is not as isolated as one is tempted to think. Most of the votes in the United Nations to censure Russia this year, including a vote within the ITU itself, all passed in small numbers, with many outside Western democracies abstaining. Russia still commands large electoral blocs of support for the United Nations, and voting will be held by secret ballot which will allow countries to escape any backlash for their support for Russia.
Second, while Russia and China may have slightly different approaches to internet governance, they are in strategic alignment with the ITU. A victory for Russia in the ITU is a victory for China. In February, Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping issued a joint statement pledging to strengthen cooperation on Internet sovereignty at the ITU. Where any Russian influence may have diminished because of Ukraine, behind the scenes is the Chinese campaign. While only states can vote in elections, Chinese companies and delegations are extremely active in the influential ITU working groups. They will strongly support Ismailov’s candidacy.
Finally, and most importantly, there is the inconvenient truth that even without this geopolitical pressure, many countries will eventually support Russia at the ITU. Russia is working on a platform to move internet governance into the multilateral system, away from the multi-stakeholder system created and still mostly dominated by US technology companies and industrial groups. States will have more control over what users can access and what users can post. Many countries lack the resources to effectively engage in the multi-stakeholder model and all its different forums. Even if they did, because much of the governance is led by industry, it’s still dominated by US or Western tech companies, meaning smaller countries have limited influence. Russia’s alternative vision for Internet governance is undeniably attractive in this regard.
The battle for the internet will begin today in Bucharest, with voting on 29 September. While the outcome of the ITU election is still far from certain, it will surely be a closer race than most realize. The future of the Internet is at stake.
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