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An Election that Saved the Internet

November 2, 2022


Earlier this year, I wrote about an election that was to be held in October at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).[1] Concerning that election, Tom Wheeler (@tewheels), a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Institution, explained, “The International Telecommunication Union has been described as ‘The most important UN agency you have never heard of.’ The ITU’s upcoming quadrennial Plenipotentiary Conference, to be held in Bucharest, Romania this September 26th through October 14th, will host the most important election you have never heard of. … Atop the agenda for Bucharest is the selection of a new ITU Secretary-General. The election — decided by votes of the member nations — is shaping up as a tussle between a candidate who is American and one who is Russian.”[2]


Fortunately, the American candidate, Doreen Bogdan-Martin (@ITUBDTDirector), won the election. Following the election, journalist Justin Ling (@Justin_Ling) wrote, “Open-internet advocates are breathing a sigh of relief after a recent election for the International Telecommunications Union’s top leadership. Five years ago, the White House made a promise to reengage with international forums that could decide the future of the internet. After an American candidate quashed a Russian challenger to lead the International Telecommunications Union earlier this month, Washington can pat itself on the back.”[3] That might sound prideful; however, Wheeler explained, the election wasn’t simply about national pride but about the future of the Internet and the Internet of Things (IoT).


What Was at Stake


According to Wheeler, Russia and China have been colluding to change the very nature of the Internet. He explained:


In June 2021, the leaders of China and Russia signed a pact which is now manifesting itself at the ITU. The agreement explained its purpose as ‘ensuring that all States have equal rights to participate in global-network governance, increasing their role in this process and preserving the sovereign right of States to regulate the national segment of the internet.’ The language may be lofty sounding, but its effect is low-down. The call for nation-states to take over internet governance is a call to de-democratize the world’s most important network. ‘In the annals of diplomatic hypocrisy, this accord is a stunner, even by Russian and Chinese standards,’ observed The Washington Post’s David Ignatius. As if politicizing the internet is not sufficient, the Russians and Chinese also seek to force the redesign of the internet’s underlying standard. Currently, the internet is built on the lingua franca of a common technical standard called ‘internet protocol’ or ‘IP.’ China has proposed a new standard — called ‘New IP’ — that would give governments more control over internet activities, including the individualized determination of who gets on and what they can do. They want that standard to be driven by the ITU.”


Ling writes, “Bogdan-Martin’s win and other down-ballot shakeups mark a major shift for the ITU that some analysts say will better ensure the internet is free from censorship and meddling from authoritarian nation-states. However, others warn that the ITU has far more work to do to help guarantee an open global internet.” U.S. Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken (@ABlinken) congratulated Bogdan-Martin on her election. He wrote: “I congratulate Doreen Bogdan-Martin on her historic election to serve as the next Secretary General of the International Telecommunication Union. This outcome reflects a broad endorsement by member states of Ms. Bogdan-Martin’s vision for universal connectivity, digital empowerment, and leadership at the ITU that is innovative, collaborative, and inclusive.”[4] Bart Hogeveen, Head of Cyber Capacity Building at Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Center, added, “Framing the election in terms of geopolitical symbolism, however, does an injustice to the winning candidate’s expertise and competence. It also miscasts the role of the ITU.”[5]


In her first statement as ITU Secretary-General, Bogdan-Martin wrote, “I fully believe in the power and potential of connectivity to drive economic growth and transform healthcare, education, employment, gender equality and youth empowerment. We are riding a powerful wave of innovation, and we need to seize this opportunity to improve peoples’ lives — especially those who are excluded. What we do now will affect generations to come.”[6] Hogeveen underscored the difficult challenges the new Secretary-General will have to confront. He wrote, “The reality of managing international organizations is that a secretary-general is more of a secretary than a general. They have influence over agendas and processes — which is important — but they will have to work through an administration with seniors representing all geographic areas. More than that, no leader of an international organization can allow themselves to be seen as favoring national positions; that would instantly undermine their credibility.”


Hogeveen concludes, “Her election can become a significant milestone if it serves as a turning point for reigniting the enthusiasm of the US and its allies and partners for the ITU’s work. However, significant efforts by US President Joe Biden’s administration will be required to instill lofty ambitions, such as those articulated in the Declaration on the Future of the Internet, into the proceedings of the various ITU-run technical working groups and to get stakeholders in the telecoms, cyber and technology industries sufficiently interested in articulating, promoting and advocating liberal norms and democratic values.” Today’s global economy is inextricably reliant on the connectivity provided by the Internet. Despite authoritarian regimes’ desires to control the information available to their populations, today’s world requires connectivity to function smoothly. Bogdan-Martin’s election was a crucial step in ensuring the future of the Internet.


[1] Stephen DeAngelis, “The Internet of Things and the International Telecommunication Union,” Enterra Insights, 26 August 2022.
[2] Tom Wheeler, “The most important election you never heard of,” The Brookings Institution, 12 August 2022.
[3] Justin Ling, “The Election That Saved the Internet From Russia and China,” Wired, 30 October 2022.
[4] Anthony J. Blinken, “The Election of Doreen Bogdan-Martin as Secretary General of the International Telecommunication Union,” United States Department of State, 29 September 2022.
[5] Bart Hogeveen, “US candidate beats Russian to secure top UN telecommunications job,” ASPI’s The Strategist, 7 October 2022.
[6] Doreen Bogdan-Martin, “A Trusted, Connected Digital Future,” United States Department of State, 29 September 2022.

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