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Griffin on Tech: A vote for an open internet

Peter Griffin, Editor. 30 September 2022, 12:32 pm

This week's election of a new head of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) should have drawn little interest beyond the geeky world of telecommunications and networking.

But the fact that one of the two candidates standing for election to head the United Nations telecommunications agency was Rashid Ismailov, a former deputy minister at Russia’s Ministry of Telecom and Mass Communication, put the obscure election on the mainstream media’s radar.

Ismailov, who has also worked for Chinese tech giant Huawei as well as Ericsson and is currently a Nokia executive based in Moscow, had no chance of winning in the current geopolitical environment - he picked up just 25 of 172 votes by member states.

US candidate Doreen Bogdan-Martin, who was arguably much better qualified for the role anyway, was yesterday elected to the role of Secretary General for a four-year term at the ITU’s meeting in Bucharest.

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New ITU Secretary General Doreen Bogdan-Martin

Bogdan-Martin has spent over 30 years in the telecommunications sector and the last three as director of the ITU’s Development Bureau. More importantly, her top-line campaign message was that she wanted the ITU to support “universal connectivity underpinned by secure and resilient networks” for the world’s internet users. That’s essentially a continuation of the status quo, with a stronger focus on bridging the digital divide and getting the 3.7 billion humans still unconnected online.

Ismailov hit the right notes in his own candidate statement with a similar focus on the digital divide and efforts “to harmonize human beings with a new digital world that was created for them”.

He also implied that the ITU needs to moderate the influence of states, transnational corporations and influential regulators, each of which he argued, each of which is trying to pull the so-called ‘digital blanket’ close around, getting more authorities (sic) by continuously enhancing technological capabilities.”

ITU delegates will have chuckled at that. If the subtext to his comments is that Western nations and multinational corporations are using technology to increase control and dominate their citizens and customers, what of Russia’s vision for the future of the internet?

Well before the Ukrainian conflict, which has seen Russia ramp up its censorship of websites and social media platforms, Russia had joined China in pushing the ITU to pursue “internet sovereignty”, which would make it easier for each nation to determine and control who uses the internet.

The ManyNets argument

In China’s case, Huawei came up with the New IP proposal. As The Register explains:

“New IP proposes a Many Networks – or ManyNets – approach to global internetworking, with distinct, individual networks allowed to set their own rules on access to systems and content. Some of the rules envisioned under New IP could require individuals to register for network access, and allow central control – even shutdowns – of traffic on a national network.”

That would make surveillance and censorship on a national level easier and allow governments much more control of the internet in their domain. The idea of a shift away from the idealism of an open internet for everyone to internet protocols that enable tighter control of the internet at a national level was clearly horrifying to many ITU member nations.

Internet land grab

So Bogdan-Martin’s election to run the ITU, which has a lot of sway internationally when it comes to setting standards and policies around telecommunications infrastructure, network protocols and radio spectrum, is a welcome development.

But Russia, China and other allied nations are already going to great lengths to control their citizens access to the internet and are engaged in significant digital surveillance. At what point will the ITU decide that the direction of travel in those countries goes against the principles it seeks to uphold?

As geopolitical tensions mount and the Ukrainian conflict reaches an ominously critical point with President Putin annexing regions of eastern Ukraine, the fight for the future of the internet also looks set to escalate.


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