Despite its name, the Palace of Parliament in the centre of Bucharest, Romania’s capital, is no monument to democracy. It was conceived in the 1980s by Nicolae Ceaușescu, Romania’s late communist dictator, and built to match the size of his ego. It boasts 365,000 square metres of floor space, much of which stands unused and unheated (Buckingham Palace, in comparison, is downright cosy, spreading across only 77,000).
But the palace will soon play host to an important election. On September 29th, during its quadrennial plenipotentiary conference, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) will elect its next secretary-general there. The cold war-era venue is fitting, for the vote pits an American against a Russian amid an atmosphere of mutual suspicion. Doreen Bogdan-Martin, the American candidate, is currently one of the ITU’s three directors. Rashid Ismailov, her Russian rival, is a telecoms executive who was once the country’s deputy minister of telecoms and mass communications (both are pictured above).
The election would be closely followed even without the complications posed by the war in Ukraine, for it marks a new phase in an ongoing conflict about how the digital realm will be organised in future. Will it resemble the internet, a freewheeling, decentralised global network of networks, governed mostly by consensus and “multi-stakeholder” groups, where all interested parties have at least some say? Or will it look more like the telephone system of old—a centralised edifice largely controlled by national governments?
“The ITU election is like a primary,” says Tom Wheeler, a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), who is now at the Brookings Institution, a think-tank. The result, he argues, will help set the direction of travel ultimately decided on by votes from the 193 national members of the ITU. The result is far from certain, with neither camp seeming sure of victory.
The ITU may seem an unlikely forum for such a contested election. Established in 1865 to regulate the new-fangled telegraph, it concerns itself mostly with technical work like setting standards for telephone networks, allocating satellite orbits and carving up the radio spectrum between different users to prevent interference. It has always prided itself on being one of the UN’s most pragmatic organisations, taking almost all decisions by consensus. After all, engineers speak a similar language of maths and physics, regardless of their origins. Even during the cold war they managed to negotiate the International Telecommunication Regulations, a global treaty that still governs a good deal of the telecoms traffic between countries.
When engineers developed the internet in the 1970s, they did not have the needs of governments particularly in mind. The network chops information into discrete “packets” and sends them out into the ether. Packets can take different routes to their destination, and often arrive out of order (they are reassembled by the recipient’s computer). The idea was to build a network that was resilient. In the same way that traffic can divert down side roads when highways are blocked, internet packets can find their way around obstacles, whether those are network interruptions or attempts at censorship. The “multi-stakeholder model” means that all interested parties—including governments, but also the voluntary technical task-forces that set standards, big networking proers and the like—have a say in how the network should evolve.
When the internet began to go mainstream in the 1990s, governments—and especially autocratic ones—tried to regain some of their lost power, mostly by commanding the creation of “splinternets”, national networks where different rules applied. China’s approach was the most comprehensive. A sophisticated combination of automated filtering (the “Great Firewall”) and laborious human censorship tries to keep unwanted content out. Those who say things of which the government disapproves can have their posts disappeared; occasionally the posters themselves disappear as well.
More recently, other countries have followed suit, including Iran, Saudi Arabia and Russia. Even before the media clampdown that accompanied Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, internet-service proers were required to install equipment that allows Roskomnadzor, the country’s online regulator, to centrally block apps and websites the government in Moscow deems dangerous, including Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, a trio of American social networks. Those who post “disinformation” about the Ukraine war face up to 15 years in jail.
This authoritarian pushback has now entered a new phase, says Emily Taylor, who heads Oxford Information Labs, a cyber-intelligence firm. The ambition, she says, is no longer just to control national internets, but to change the character of the global one. This means trying to expand or even move the internet’s governance from multi-stakeholder organisations to a multilateral one in which governments have the final say—in particular, the ITU.
More importantly, it means pushing for a new architecture in which the network is more capable of monitoring what is happening, and where users have a permanent identity. If this is implemented, autocratic governments could more easily find out who is mocking them with a meme or calling for protests—and have them arrested or disappeared. Bureaucrats could also collect data about what people do online, analyse it and act preemptively to snuff out possible future subversion, if algorithms suggest they should.
The ambition first became visible a decade ago, when a group of countries led by Russia tried to extend the ITU’s remit to cover the internet at a meeting in Dubai meant to update the International Telecommunication Regulations. Then, in 2019, Huawei, China’s biggest telecoms-equipment maker, started pitching to the ITU something called “New IP” (for “internet protocol”), a set of technologies which would turn the standards that Chinese firms were developing at home into a set of global rules.
Both efforts failed. But both countries keep trying: Russia at the UN in negotiations about cybersecurity and China by breaking “New IP” down into smaller parts, rebranding them and re-presenting them to several standards organisations, including the ITU and even the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), another multi-stakeholder group. That push is helped, explains Ms Taylor, by the ever-growing appetite for connectivity. New wireless networks, ever more connected devices, applications powered by artificial intelligence—the world is rapidly developing a digital atmosphere which may well require new standards and rules. But if China’s standards are adopted, she warns, “we are at risk of losing this lightweight, interoperable and flexible internet.”
All that explains why, despite the limited power of its secretary-general, it matters hugely who will lead the ITU over the next four years (which may well turn into eight, since most ITU bosses are re-elected for a second term). If Ms Bogdan-Martin wins, it will be a clear sign that most countries do not want to move into the direction outlined by Russia and China. If Mr Ismailov prevails, he is likely to further the two countries’ agenda. His predecessor, Houlin Zhao, a Chinese official, got the ITU to support his country’s “Belt and Road Initiative”, a collection of China-funded infrastructure projects around the world, which often include proing computers and connectivity.
Ms Bogdan-Martin is eminently qualified for the job. She has worked for the ITU for nearly 30 years. Over the past three years she led one of the ITU’s three divisions, the Telecommunication Development Bureau (BDT), to general acclaim. Mainly charged with helping developing countries improve their telecoms infrastructure and getting more people online, she launched initiatives such as “Partner2Connect”, which has so far collected pledges of more than $26bn from governments, companies and other organisations to invest in better connectivity in the world’s poorest regions.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a career UN technocrat, Ms Bogdan-Martin’s publicly-stated aims do not venture far beyond the platitudinous. She says she wants to continue what she has started as the director of the BDT: getting more of the world’s population, of which 2.7bn still lack access to the internet. And she hopes to make the ITU a more efficient and agile organisation. “I will hold the General Secretariat and each Bureau to high standards,” she writes in her election platform (she did not proe answers to written questions from The Economist).
Mr Ismailov is no stranger to the ITU, either. As Russia’s deputy telecoms minister, he led the country’s delegation to the organisation and in 2018 chaired the ITU council, its governing body between the quadrennial plenipotentiary conferences. But he spent most of his professional life as an executive at big telecoms equipment makers such as Ericsson, Nokia and, for three years before he joined the government in 2014, Huawei. He was also involved with a company that developed some of the monitoring and snooping technology now installed at Russian ISPs, which is based on something called “deep packet inspection”. He is currently the president of Beeline, a mobile-phone service in Russia.
Mr Ismailov’s election platform is a much more openly political one than his rival’s. He, too, thinks that the election is crucial. Technology is becoming ever more pervasive, he says, and the ITU is the only forum where countries “can really raise their voice” and “defend their sovereignty”. The alternative, he argues, is a digital realm that remains dominated by America and its companies. As secretary-general he says he would work to make the ITU the main venue to discuss and decide the crucial questions in the world of telecoms. As for New IP, he says it is too early to have a discussion since its specifications are not yet fully formed, but that “a lack of a constructive dialogue” between the parties involved could provoke a “war of standards”.
Both camps have been campaigning heavily until the last possible moment. Ms Bogdan-Martin has been canvassing the world’s governments for 18 months now. America’s State Department has created an office which helps manage her campaign and involves so many other agencies that insiders have taken to calling it a “whole-of-government” effort. When Antony Blinken, the Secretary of State, recently visited Africa, whose countries often tip the balance at ITU elections, Ms Bogdan-Martin’s candidacy was near the top of his agenda. He also tweeted a statement in support of Ms Bogdan-Martin.
Mr Ismailov’s campaign seems to have been less organised. After a bad bout of co-19 he only started properly campaigning in May. Since then he has attended a conference of the African Telecommunications Union in Algeria and similar local industry gatherings in Kyrgyzstan and Saudi Arabia. He has had plenty of help from the ministry he used to head. It has made sure that Russian representatives have talked to the national officials who will actually vote in Bucharest.
Even at this late stage in the campaign, the outcome is anybody’s guess. Observers agree only that the election will be close. A big unknown is whether Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will hurt Mr Ismailov’s chances. A majority of ITU members in March voted to exclude some Russian representatives from the leadership of some standardisation groups. But many “swing countries”, such as Brazil and India, seem to have abstained from those votes, says Justin Sherman of the Atlantic Council, a think-tank. He thinks the war in Ukraine will have little impact on Mr Ismailov’s chances.
Whatever the outcome, the level of official American support for its candidate—as well as the equally active campaign by the European Union for Tomas Lamanauskas, a former Lithuania telecoms regulator, who is running for deputy secretary-general—is a sign that both are finally taking the ITU in particular, and tech diplomacy in general, more seriously, says Karen Kornbluh, a former American ambassador to the OECD, a club mostly of rich countries, who is now at the German Marshall Fund, another think-tank. In order to persuade other countries of the merits of an open, American-style internet, she says, their complaints – that big American tech companies are trampling on their digital sovereignty, for instance – have to be taken more seriously. Internet-governance groups such as ICANN and the IETF, whose members are mostly from the rich world, also merit a closer look. “Countries should not feel that the ITU is the only place they can go to get answers and solutions.”
For years the focus of American international internet policy remained largely stuck in the idealistic 1990s; that “you just need to connect more people to get more democracy,” says Ms Kornbluh. Now, belatedly, it is realising that a free and open internet is not a matter of technological inevitability, but something it will have to fight for.■