The election that saved the internet from Russia and China

While Bogdan-Martin’s victory was significant, the down races also seemed to indicate a rejection of this expanded ITU mandate. A Russian incumbent lost its place on the ITU’s radio regulatory board, while Russia was barred from a seat on a wider regulatory board. Iran, which runs one of the most extensive and authoritarian internet filtering systems in the world, also lost its seat on the council.

While China has fared better, its support has dropped significantly. In 2018, Houlin Zhao was elected general secretary without contest – in 2022, a Chinese candidate came third in a race for a lower position, only narrowly securing him a place on the board.

Some of these successes are undoubtedly the result of American re-engagement; the Trump White House first announced a plan in 2017 to prioritize organizations like the ITU, which had been ignored by Washington for years, in order to counter China’s growing success in such forums international. Over the past year, President Joe Biden has campaigned vigorously for Bogdan-Martin’s candidacy.

Geopolitics – and Russia’s war on Ukraine, in particular – has undoubtedly helped reshape the leadership of the ITU.

When Bella Cherkesova, a Russian deputy minister, rose to address the conference, she railed against the United States and its allies. “Recently, at the request of some countries, we have faced the politicization of the work of the Union,” said Cherkesova, lamenting that a full third of Russian delegates were refused visas and could not attend the conference and that other Russian officials have not been appointed to various administrative posts.

Cherkesova went on to praise Moscow’s promotion of the internet. “Russia provides security, protection of public order, health and morals of the population on the Internet,” she said.

In a duel speech, one of Ukraine’s ITU representatives offered a poignant counterpoint. “Representatives of the aggressor country are also here talking about progress and standards,” Yurii Shchyhol, chairman of Ukraine’s State Service for Special Communications and Information Protection, told the conference. “We have to defend ourselves.”

Shchyhol added that Russia had “weaponized” the core technology that the ITU is responsible for regulating and developing. “Today, seven months after the invasion, we understand that the Russian Federation also sought to destroy the connection in Ukraine,” Shchyhol continued, listing various ways Russia allegedly violated ITU rules.

While think tanks like CSIS and the Heritage Foundation have encouraged American engagement at the ITU to focus on the fight against China, analysts more intimately involved with the ITU say the fight is more complicated and , they say, this month’s meeting lacked ambition.

In its analysis of the proposals submitted for discussion at the conference, the Internet Society, a nonprofit organization that promotes open technology, expressed disappointment that ITU had not codified more formal cooperation with organizations such as ICANN, nor makes additional space for researchers and non-governmental organizations.

Knodel of the Center for Democracy & Technology, who was also part of the US delegation, says inviting advocates like her has “made the ITU much more open than it once was. However, non-governmental stakeholders are far from welcome in the ITU, which in the age of the Internet stands in stark contrast to the governance forums that are largely responsible for standardizing the Internet and cooperation necessary for the implementation of its decentralized concept.

While states like China “are coming up with more technical designs that centralize control and oversight,” Knodel says, even many of those discussions were avoided at the last conference.

Other important issues, such as how to manage the fees paid to the countries that run the fiber optic cables that form the backbone of the Internet – which could reduce the incomes of the poorest countries – have also not not been resolved.

Knodel says that with this new ITU leadership in place, the priority going forward should be determining “how to expand meaningful access to the Internet rather than erode it.”

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