Mar 3, 2022 - Technology

U.S. vs Russia for the future of the internet

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

U.S. officials are stepping 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 on the little-known agency raise the stakes for what the Russian government's vision of the internet could mean for the rest of the world, especially following its invasion of Ukraine.

  • "You don't have to look very far to understand, in this current day and age of geopolitics, how important it is to have the right kinds of open communications networks," Alan Davidson, head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, told Axios.
  • "Part of why we're able to see what we're seeing on the ground [in Ukraine] is because we have open communications."

State of play: The U.S. is running a candidate to lead the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the telecommunications agency of the UN.

  • If elected, Doreen Bogdan-Martin would be the first female secretary-general of the ITU, and the first U.S. leader since the 1960s.
  • Her competition is Russian candidate Rashid Ismailov, who previously worked for the Russian government and Huawei, as well as Nokia and Ericsson.

Driving the news: Federal Communications Commission chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel is campaigning for Bogdan-Martin during 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 push the U.S. candidate, a government official told Axios.

Why it matters: There's a battle brewing over how much of a role the ITU and governments should have over internet standards and protocols, with China and Russia advocating for the ITU to have more control over how the internet operates.

  • China and Russia's vision would "encourage governments to have greater control over who's allowed to use the internet, how it's allowed to be used and whether or not there should be free flow of information," David Gross, a former ambassador for international communications policy, told Axios.
  • That's in contrast with the Western "bottom-up approach" of technologists, civil society groups and others determining internet standards and protocols.

How it works: The nonprofit organization Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) coordinates the internet's address system and other technical operations.

  • But Russia and China leaders have said the ITU should be the place for negotiations over the way the internet would operate.
  • That "multilateral approach" would mean that "the government should be the ones making these decisions," Gross said.

The intrigue: The vote will be held by secret ballot this fall at the ITU's Plenipotentiary Conference in Bucharest by the 193 member countries. Each country gets one vote.

  • Bogdan-Martin has worked for the ITU for nearly 30 years, lives in Europe and is seen as a global citizen — a boon for an American candidate taking on an international role.
  • "Things are largely done on consensus at the ITU, so she knows how to bring around that consensus," Susan Ness, a former FCC commissioner and a 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 appeal to other member countries as well.

  • ICANN's roots as an American organization have long led many other nations to argue that the UN should assume more of its functions.
  • "We are deeply concerned about the direction that the ITU might move in under that kind of direction from somebody who comes from a much more authoritarian view of communications," Davidson told Axios.
  • "We think there's actually a much more high stakes election than you would normally find in a standards body. That's why the U.S. government is putting a lot of energy into supporting this historic candidate."
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