Termed the “most important United Nations agency you have never heard of”, the International Telecommunication Union or ITU will be holding its quadrennial conference in Bucharest, Romania, from 26 September to 14 October. The plenipotentiary conference is scheduled to elect the ITU’s new secretary general. What makes this poll so consequential, say experts, is that it is not just about who occupies the secretary general’s plush office in Geneva but the fact that, to quote Tom Wheeler of the Brookings Institute, “lurking behind the scenes in this election is a competition between two visions of the internet: An open internet, or a kind of state-controlled internet that resembles Russia’s and China’s.” Invariably, given the New Cold War thesis currently in vogue, the electoral race has boiled down to one between an American and a Russian and the worldviews their respective backers represent.
The ITU, founded in 1865 as the International Telegraph Union for the purpose of facilitating cross-border operations of the new technology, has since been the primary standard-setter for telecommunications networks. The ITU asserts that every time anyone in the world makes a call on their mobile phone, accesses the internet, or even sends an email, they are benefitting from the work of ITU. As the standards for fibre-optic cable and mobile networks are a part of the ITU process, adds Wheeler, this claim is substantially correct; the issue, however, is that when it comes to the internet, the ITU has played a less determinative role. For, the internet grew apart from the ITU and not from it. The standards by which the internet operates are not ITU standards but were developed by a multi-stakeholder process in which technologists, companies, civil society, and governments reached a consensus.
The vehicle for such internet standards is the Internet Engineering Task Force, one of several voluntary institutions that together maintain and run the internet. Wheeler and other Western experts argue that now Russia and China are seeking to move internet governance to the ITU where “bottom-up design” of internet standards could be replaced with “top-down decisions” based on the politics of its member nation-states. So, when the top item on the agenda of the Bucharest conference ~ the election of the new ITU secretary general ~ is taken up, there will be much at stake. The American candidate, Ms Doreen BogdanMartin, is an ITU veteran and the first woman to head one of the agency’s three major bureaus. The Russian candidate, Mr Rashid Ismailov, is a former deputy minister in the Russian Ministry of Telecom and Mass Communications, and an ex-Huawei executive.
International tension over internet policy first came to the fore at the ITU-sponsored 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications when a majority of nations voted to increase ITU’s authority over the internet but the USA refused to sign the resulting treaty. Ms Bogdan-Martin is thought to be in sync with Washington’s stand. In June 2021, Russia and China signed a pact to ensure “all states have equal rights to participate in global-network governance, increase their role in this process and preserve the sovereign right of states to regulate the national segment of the internet”. This is the position Mr Ismailov represents. The ITU conference is all set to be the venue for this clash of cultures in the digital age.