The election that could mark the future of the internet

The election that could mark the future of the internet

This week, in Romania, a US candidate faces a Russian challenger in a vote that will establish the new leadership of one of the world's most important international technology organizations.

Winner could determine whether the internet will remain a platform relatively decentralized and open, or if it begins to be centralized in the hands of nation states and state-owned companies, which may decide to exercise extensive control over what their citizens see and do online. Yet, a few days before the vote, the race for the position of Secretary General of the International Telecommunications Union (known by the English acronym Itu) has received little attention.

It is a race to two: on the one hand there is the American Doreen Bogdan-Martin, a former telecommunications expert at the US Department of Commerce, who joined ITU in the 1990s. His opponent is Rashid Ismailov, former Deputy Minister of the Russian Telecommunications Ministry.

Judging by their respective electoral programs, Bogdan-Martin and Ismailov have the same essential goal: to connect every person in the world to the internet and services of mobile telephony by 2030. The two candidates, however, represent fundamentally different visions for the future of the web. Bodgan-Martin's campaign focused on her experience navigating the complex machine of the United Nations. Ismailov, on the other hand, promised a "humanization" of telecommunication infrastructures and presented his candidacy as a way to reject American "dominance" on the internet.

If the wrong candidate wins, says Göran Marby , head of the Internet corporation for assigned names and numbers (Icann), the risk is very high: "People all over the world may no longer be able to connect to a single interoperable internet."

What the ITU does

Although today the ITU is technically under the aegis of the United Nations, it predates the creation of the international organization by about 80 years.

Born to standardize the Morse alphabet and encode standard emergency calls, ITU is now responsible for creating standards and interoperability between a range of different services and technologies, as well as expanding access to modern communication platforms.

Maintaining interoperability is an unsung but fundamental task. Among other things, the ITU must ensure that all countries agree on the division of spaces in the radio frequency spectrum and assigns orbital slots to the various communications satellites. To give an example, it is thanks to the organization that a Japanese mobile phone also works in Dakar and vice versa.

Unlike other UN bodies, the Itu is not exclusively composed of national states: among its members there are 190 national states, but also 900 companies, research bodies and NGOs (although only member countries can participate in the election of the national secretary). For the past eight years, the organization has been led by Zhao Houlin, who has climbed the ranks of ITU's sprawling bureaucracy after leaving the Chinese Ministry of Telecommunications in 1986.

Kristen Cordell, a collaborator of the Center for strategic and tnternational studies (CSIS), defined ITU "the most important United Nations agency you have never heard of", underlining how the decisions taken by the international body "have a huge impact on the daily life of Americans ".

Houlin's mandate and Chinese proposals

Authoritarian states like China, Cordell wrote," have increased their interest and activism in the ITU, sparking fear that their immense influence in the definition of standards could lead to a fork in the internet ". According to Cordell, Houlin's tenure at the helm of the organization was marked by "comments and decisions very favorable to Chinese companies," which in turn increased their involvement in the ITU. Cordell reports that Huawei alone has submitted around two thousand new standard proposals to the organization.

In 2019 Houlin signed a Memorandum of Understanding between the Itu and the Export-Import Bank of China to expand the Internet access in the southern hemisphere as part of the Belt and road initiative, the so-called new Chinese silk road. The initiative has been criticized as a form of neo-colonialism: binding countries, especially African ones, to high-interest loans that tie them to Chinese investments.

Chinese state-owned companies and the Beijing government they propose, in their own words, a "new Internet protocol", which would represent a response to the lack of innovation in the way data is processed at the lower levels of the internet. China has suggested that tagging data packets based on their function could improve data routing and reduce latency. Critics, however, argue that the problems identified by China have already been addressed and that the country's proposals would likely lead to a worsening of the situation rather than an improvement.

Many see a second purpose in Chinese initiatives. A new Balkanized internet "would lack free and open standards and would lend itself to manipulation by autocrats seeking to curtail civil liberties and human rights," argues Cordell.

"The new IP would centralize control of the network in the hands of telecommunications operators, which in China are all managed or controlled by the state - reads a 2020 report by the Oxford Information Labs, prepared for NATO and obtained by Infosecurity Magazine -. the internet would become an arm of the Chinese state ".

ITU members have largely rejected proposals for a new IP. However, this does not mean that China has surrendered. Fiona Alexander, co-founder of Salt Point Strategies and member of the US delegation to the ITU, points out that some authoritarian regimes are resorting to "tricks" in putting forward proposals such as the new IP (recently, China has renamed the initiative with the harmless name of "IPV6 +").

China has recognized that from its point of view greater central control is one of the positive aspects of these proposals: "States have the right to adopt public policies related to ICT [information and communication technologies, ed.] that they are consistent with national circumstances to manage their business on the subject and protect the legitimate interests of their citizens in cyberspace ", reads a series of documents from 2019 drafted by the government Chinese.

Normally this type of work is not the responsibility of the ITU. Usually it is non-governmental groups such as Icann and the Internet engineering task force (Ietf) that are most directly involved in the management of the protocols that govern the Internet.

Russia-China synergies

Russian candidate for the leadership of the ITU, Ismailov, is no stranger to China's international politics, having served as Huawei's regional vice president for three years. Ismailov subsequently climbed the ranks of the Russian telecommunications ministry before joining Nokia and then joining the Russian telecommunications company Pjsc VimpelCom.

Within ITU Beijing and Moscow have made no secret of the fact that they are on the same wavelength.

A 2021 pact between the two countries commits them both to flex their muscles on issues affecting international technological governance, in order to "preserve the sovereign right of states to regulate the national segment of the internet ". "Russia and China underline the need to strengthen the role of the International Telecommunications Union and to strengthen the representation of the two countries in its governing bodies", reads the agreement.

Ismailov was transparent about the fact that his view of the organization is in stark contrast to that of Bogdan-Martin. "Perhaps the Americans are perhaps allergic to all those who have had anything to do with Huawei", Ismailov declares in the official video of his election campaign, adding that the "demonization" of the Chinese company took place in his opinion "for fear of competition". Ismailov said he will "try to avoid politicizing" the organization, while at the same time pledging to defend Russia from the repercussions of the invasion of Ukraine.

The US take to the field

If she wins, Bodgan-Martin will be the first woman to lead the ITU, in addition to the first US since 1965. Although the State Department claims that Bodgan-Martin is "the right candidate at the right time", the choice is not accidental. .

When Houlin first ran for the position of ITU Secretary General in 2014, Houlin had no challengers. In 2017, the administration of former US President Donald Trump presented its national security strategy: a jumble of tactics aimed at countering China's growing influence in the world. In the plan, the White House identified the defense of a free and open internet as a top priority, indicating as necessary measures "active engagement in key organizations" including the ITU, cited directly. However, at the 2018 ITU Plenipotentiary Conference, Houlin was able to stand again without opposition: his re-election was supported by 176 of the 178 countries present.

In view of the forthcoming election of the organization's secretary general , which will take place on 29 September during this year's conference in Bucharest, the United States seems to want to get serious. Members of the US delegation, as well as a senior State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity, point out that Bodgan-Martin ran an intense election campaign. A litany of photos posted on Twitter, and a surprisingly active hashtag, portray her meeting technical and civil society groups around the world.

In February, the US named Ambassador Erica Barks- Ruggles as his representative at the Itu conference, with the mission of having Bogdan-Martin elected. Late last year, the ambassador appeared before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee to emphasize that the United States' focus on the ITU election, among other things, meant "thwarting attempts by of countries such as the People's Republic of China and Russia to reshape and undermine international law, institutions and standards. " President Joe Biden also released a statement of support for Bogdan-Martin.

Ismailov, meanwhile, is trying to turn the vote into a US referendum. "You can clearly see the two fields in which humanity is divided: the developing countries and the West", says in the video of his campaign the Russian candidate, who in relation to the internet defines the United States, and more in general the West, as a monopoly.

The consequences of the vote

Although there is some optimism about Bodgan-Martin's chances of victory, none of the experts and delegates of the Those who spoke to UK went so far as to predict his victory. Although Russia has lost a series of important UN votes in recent months, the race for the post of Secretary General, unlike many other votes in the international body, is a secret vote, which therefore leaves room for negotiation.

The Russian pact with China is undoubtedly attractive to less democratic countries who want to be free to regulate and restrict the Internet as they see fit. But there are also other reasons that could make Ismailov's vote particularly inviting. Earlier this year, Russian satellite operator Intersputnik announced that Russia would fund a two-hundred-seat canteen in the new UTI headquarters in Geneva.

That for the new secretary general is not the the only important race within the ITU. At the annual meeting to be held at the end of the month, members of the organization will also select several other senior officials, elect members of regulatory committees, and choose a new board. These choices could potentially determine how the ITU will address these fundamental issues over the next four years.

The choice of the new secretary general, however, will indicate the direction the organization is taking. Göran Marby, Icann's chief executive, did not want to officially endorse Bodgan-Martin, but at the organization's annual meeting last week he said voting for Ismailov would imply "that people around the world may not be able to. connect to a single interoperable internet ". In an e-mailed statement, a spokesperson for Marby told UK that Ismailov's candidacy threatens to further centralize control within the ITU. "The Internet works on the basis of a system of voluntary standards, good practices, cooperation and trust - he wrote -; this cooperative model works. The Internet has worked without problems for almost 40 years". While reiterating his neutrality with respect to the election, the spokesman added that "if ICANN's functions were transferred to ITU, the risk of internet fragmentation would be absolutely real and internet interoperability would be jeopardized".

This article originally appeared on UK.

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