United Nations elections are set to impact how nations shape the internet

Elections to head the technical bodies of the United Nations rarely attract much public attention.

But when delegates from 193 countries choose the next secretary general of the International Telecommunication Union in Bucharest’s Parliament Building on Thursday, there will be much more at stake than the symbolic figure of an arcane institution.

Experts say the outcome of the election, which pits an American against a Russian, is likely to determine the extent to which nation states are able to govern the Internet.

The battle takes place against a backdrop of growing concern about the fragmentation of the global internet, with many tech experts and civil society groups concerned about governments’ attempts to limit their citizens’ access to the web.

Russia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Uganda are among the states that in recent years have blocked public access to certain sites, or more generally to the Internet, during elections or times of social unrest. Last week, the Iranian government blocked access to some websites after protests sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody.

“If the Russians win the ITU election, they can do a lot of damage,” said Justin Sherman, a member of the Atlantic Council’s Cyber ​​Statecraft Initiative in Washington.

Members of the Russian delegation to the conference

Members of the Russian delegation to the conference. Russia is among several nations that have disabled public access to parts of the internet © Robert Ghement/EPA-EFE

The ITU, created in 1865, develops and sets global standards for the latest technologies, from 5G to facial recognition.

But Sherman said Russian delegates had for years sought to expand his mandate to include internet policy and infrastructure and backed proposals that would give governments more power to regulate its use.

“There are many reasons why these are close and uncertain elections,” he added. “There is growing interest in more government control of the web and a smaller role of civil society in managing the internet.”

Doreen Bogdan-Martin, the US candidate, has held various positions at ITU for nearly 30 years and operates on a relatively anodyne platform to bridge the digital divide and improve digital skills and overall organizational efficiency.

On the other side sits the Russian candidate, Rashid Ismailov, currently president of the Russian telecommunications operator Beeline. While it works on a similar platform to increase global connectivity, it has also argued for disempowering the United States and increasing the “sovereignty” of nation states, as well as making the ITU the primary forum for deciding crucial questions about how people communicate on the web.

China, which holds significant influence at the agency and garnered global attention in 2020 for proposals it has made for a new internet infrastructure called “New IP”, he is widely expected to vote for Ismailov.

ITU is currently led by Chinese telecommunications engineer Houlin Zhao, who has increased China’s engagement with the organization and has used the agency to promote global technology partnerships through the superpower’s Belt and Road Initiative.

As a testament to how seriously the election is being taken, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently released a video supporting the campaign of Bogdan-Martin, one of many top US officials to make public statements.

ITU is currently led by Chinese telecommunications engineer Houlin Zhao
ITU is currently led by Chinese telecommunications engineer Houlin Zhao. China should vote for Russian candidate © Robert Ghement/EPA-EFE

Celebrated by some for its decentralized model, the Internet itself technically falls outside the purview of the ITU and is regulated primarily by non-profit groups such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) which distribute all IP addresses throughout the world .

Civil society groups believe that the secretary-general has considerable influence over the organization’s priorities and funding. They expressed concern that if internet governance were brought into the jurisdiction of the ITU, it could lead to a slippery slope where nation states would be empowered to formalize their efforts to censor and police the internet.

“The fact that [the election] is not seen as a foregone conclusion suggests that the vision of a free and open internet does not have universal support,” said Emily Taylor, managing director of Oxford Information Labs, a cyberintelligence firm. “We are moving inexorably towards different internets, some of which are much more controlled by the state?”

Ismailov, who held roles at Nokia, Ericsson and Huawei and was Russia’s deputy minister of telecommunications and mass communications between 2014 and 2018, is one of several high-level Russian officials who have advocated for the transfer of internet governance to the ‘ITU.

In 2011, President Vladimir Putin said he intended to push for “establishing international control over the Internet using the monitoring and supervision capabilities” of the ITU. Governments from Saudi Arabia to China have expressed support for the idea, amid concerns about the unchecked power of Silicon Valley and the growing political influence of the United States.

“ITU’s focus and direction in the coming years will be crucial in determining the future of digital connectivity and cooperation,” Bogdan-Martin told the Financial Times. “I believe the ITU is one of those organizations where divisions can and should be set aside in the interest of more and better communication between all people.”

Ismailov refused to be interviewed and did not respond to written questions sent by the FT.

Over the past 10 years, Moscow has implemented increasingly stringent rules to govern the home internet – dubbed the “Runet” – culminating in a “household internet law” in 2019.

This legislation sought to centralize control over the Internet infrastructure, funneling traffic through the Kremlin’s digital censor Roskomnadzor. It also mandated the creation of a national domain name system to store and control access to Internet IP addresses, should the need arise to separate the state Internet from ICANN and the Web at large.

Regardless of the outcome of the election, differences in how governments believe the internet should be structured and governed are likely to intensify, experts said, and navigating a path that ensures the web remains unified will be a challenge.

“Even if the United States wins, it’s going to be a tough road to go,” Sherman said.