US officials are ramping up a campaign to defeat a Russian candidate for a UN agency that could determine how much control governments have over the internet.
The big picture: Russia’s designs for the little-known agency raise the stakes for what the Russian government’s vision of the Internet could mean to the rest of the world, especially after its invasion of Ukraine†
- “You don’t have to look far to understand in this current age of geopolitics the importance of having the right kinds of open communications networks,” Alan Davidson, head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, told Axios.
- “Part of the reason we can see what we see on the ground [in Ukraine] is because we have open communication.”
Situation: The US is eyeing a candidate to head the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN’s telecommunications agency.
- If chosen, Doreen Bogdan Martin would be the first female secretary general of the ITU and the first American leader since the 1960s.
- Her competition is a Russian candidate Rashid Ismailovwho previously worked for the Russian government and Huawei, as well as Nokia and Ericsson.
Send 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 Telecommunication Standardization Assembly in Geneva.
- Rosenworcel is meeting with delegations from Asia, Latin America and Europe to pressure the US candidate, a government official told Axios.
Why it matters: A battle is raging over the role ITU and governments should play in Internet standards and protocols, with China and Russia argue for that the ITU gains more control over how the Internet works.
- The China-Russia vision would “encourage governments to have more control over who can use the Internet, how it can be used and whether or not there should be a free flow of information,” David Gross, a former ambassador for international communications policy, told IPS. axios.
- This contrasts with the Western ‘bottom-up approach’ of technologists, civil society groups and others who determine internet standards and protocols.
How it works: The nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) coordinates the Internet’s addressing system and other technical operations.
- But the leaders of Russia and China have said the ITU should be the place for negotiations about how the Internet would work.
- That “multilateral approach” would mean “the government has to make these decisions,” Gross said.
The Intrigue: The vote will take place this fall by secret ballot at the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference in Bucharest by the 193 member states. Each country gets one vote.
- Bogdan-Martin has worked for the ITU for nearly 30 years, living in Europe and being viewed as a citizen of the world – a blessing for an American candidate taking on an international role.
- “Things are largely done by consensus at the ITU, so she knows how to get to that consensus,” Susan Ness, a former FCC commissioner and visiting distinguished fellow at the German Marshall Fund, told Axios. “But make no mistake, control of the internet is a critical question.”
Yes but: The Russian and Chinese vision of greater government control and insight into internet operations could also appeal to other member states.
- ICANN’s roots as an American organization have led many other countries to long argue that the UN should take over more of its functions.
- “We’re very concerned about the direction the ITU could take in that kind of direction from someone coming from a much more authoritarian view of communication,” Davidson told Axios.
- “We think there’s actually a lot more election at stake than you’d normally find in a standards organization. That’s why the US government is putting a lot of effort into supporting this historic candidate.”