Washington (The Times Groupe)- The United States and Russia will face off in a high-stakes election in October to determine who will be the next secretary-general of the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union (ITU) – an election that will help determine the fate of Internet communications for five billion users worldwide.
By writing the rules for video streaming, cell phone calls, Web searches, and email, the Geneva-based ITU develops standards and practices that are critical to our everyday lives. Without the ITU, telecommunications, such as Wi-Fi, would fall apart.
Last year, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote that Russia would like to own the seat because it wants to control ITU regulations and supplant an ICANN-like organization that coordinates Web addresses. According to him, the fundamental question is whether the governance process will benefit authoritarian states that want to control information or openness and freedom advocates.
ITU members include all 193 UN member states as well as roughly 900 technology companies and other industry and academic entities.
Due to the war in Ukraine, Russia’s candidacy has thrust the little-known ITU into the limelight. Pass Blue [the multimedia news company that closely covers the US-UN relationship] says “several Western countries are concerned that the Kremlin will restrict the free flow of information if it wins the election, thus crippling the Internet.”
It would be another blow to Russia’s long-entrenched position at the UN if it loses. The Russian Federation has recently been suspended from the Geneva-based Human Rights Council and is facing other attempts to turn it into a pariah state.
As of now, it’s unclear how the ITU race will play out.
Samantha Power, the head of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and former US ambassador to the UN, spoke at the Global Digital Development Forum on May 4 and described the ITU as “the most important organization you have never heard of” and whose election will determine the future of the Internet.”
Bucharest, Romania’s capital, will host the vote in October. The 193 UN member states will vote secretly for either Doreen Bogdan-Martin or Rashid Ismailov, the Russian candidate. ITU’s new leader will take over from Houlin Zhao, a Chinese national who has served as the organization’s boss for nearly eight years.
The 30-year veteran of the agency, Bogdan-Martin is currently the director of its Telecommunication Development Bureau. She would become the first woman to lead the ITU and the first American to hold the post since the 1960s if she wins. Ismailov served as vice president for service at Huawei, the Chinese tech company, after being a deputy in the Russian Ministry of Communication and Mass Media. His most recent role was CEO of Nokia Russia. Ismailov served as the ITU Council’s chair in 2018.
PassBlue’s request for details on Bogdan-Martin’s candidacy was not responded to by the US Mission to the UN’s press office.
In a recent statement, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken described her as “a deeply experienced and widely admired expert on global communications,” adding that he was proud to endorse her candidacy. Samantha Power, UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Gina Raimondo, the secretary of commerce, and Jessica Rosenworcel, the chair of the Federal Communications Commission, all endorsed those remarks, indicating that the US is doing everything possible to defeat Russia’s bid for the UN and to secure and protect the free flow of information on the Internet.