USA versus Russia for the future of the Internet

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

US officials are stepping up a campaign to defeat a Russian candidate for a United Nations agency that could determine how much control governments have over the internet.

The big picture: Russia’s plans on the little-known agency raise the stakes on what the Russian government’s view of the Internet could mean for the rest of the world, especially following its invasion of Ukraine.

  • “You don’t have to look very far to understand, in the current era of geopolitics, how important it is to have the right kind of open communications networks,” said Alan Davidson, head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Axios.
  • “Part of the reason we’re able to see what we’re seeing on the ground [in Ukraine] it’s because we have open communications.”

Progress: The United States is a candidate to lead the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations’ telecommunications agency.

  • If elected, Doreen Bogdan-Martin she would be the ITU’s first female general secretary and the first US leader since the 1960s.
  • His competition is the Russian candidate Rashid Ismailovwho previously worked for the Russian government and Huawei, as well as Nokia and Ericsson.

Drive the news: Federal Communications Commission Chair Jessica Rosenworcel is campaigning for Bogdan-Martin on a trip to Europe this week, visiting the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona and the World Assembly for Telecommunications Standardization in Geneva.

  • Rosenworcel is meeting with delegations from Asia, Latin America and Europe to push the US candidate, a government official told Axios.

Because matter: There is an ongoing battle over the role ITU and governments should have on Internet standards and protocols, with China and Russia in favor for the ITU to have more control over the functioning of the Internet.

  • The vision of China and Russia “would encourage governments to have more control over who is allowed to use the Internet, how it can be used and whether or not there should be a free flow of information,” David Gross, former ambassador for information policy international communications, he told Axios.
  • This is in contrast to the Western “bottom-up approach” of technologists, civil society groups, and others who determine Internet standards and protocols.

How does it work: The non-profit organization Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) coordinates the Internet address system and other technical operations.

  • But the leaders of Russia and China have said the ITU should be the venue for negotiations on how the internet will work.
  • This “multilateral approach” would mean that “the government should be the one making these decisions,” Gross said.

The intrigue: Voting will be held by secret ballot this fall at the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference in Bucharest among 193 member countries. Each country gets one vote.

  • Bogdan-Martin has worked for the ITU for almost 30 years, lives in Europe and is considered a global citizen – an asset for an American candidate taking on an international role.
  • “Things are largely done on consensus at the ITU, so it knows how to get that consensus,” Susan Ness, a former FCC commissioner and distinguished visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund, told Axios. “But make no mistake, Internet control is a critical issue.”

Yes but: The Russian and Chinese vision of increased government oversight and deep insight into Internet operations could appeal to other member countries as well.

  • ICANN’s roots as an American organization have long led many other nations to argue that the United Nations should take on more functions.
  • “We are deeply concerned about the direction in which the ITU might move under that kind of leadership from someone who comes from a much more authoritarian view of communications,” Davidson told Axios.
  • “We think there’s actually a lot higher at stake than you’d typically find in a standards-setting body. That’s why the US government is investing a lot of energy into backing this historic candidate.”