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.
The conclusion of the ITU’s 2022 Plenipotentiary Conference, held in Bucharest, Romania, had advocates for an open and decentralized internet celebrating. The top win on the list was the result of the hotly contested matchup between Russian nominee Rashid Ismailov and American candidate Doreen Bogdan-Martin, who won a decisive victory with 139 of 172 votes cast. 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.
“The world is facing significant challenges—escalating conflicts, a climate crisis, food security, gender inequalities, and 2.7 billion people with no access to the internet,” Bogdan-Martin told the conference. “I believe we, the ITU and our members, have an opportunity to make a transformational contribution.”
Despite the appearance of progress, Mallory Knodel, chief technology officer at the Center for Democracy & Technology, says this year’s meeting may have just kicked some of these issues down the road. “In all honesty, it was another PP where the ITU is in a holding pattern on its most important but divisive issues,” she says. “This tactic has an expiration date.”
The ITU’s role, historically, has primarily concerned the regulation of radio frequencies and technology standardization for telephony and telegraphy—in essence, setting rules to make sure that technology works across borders. While the ITU, which sits within the United Nations and is primarily directed by nation-states, has played a big role in advancing internet connectivity, it has been governed by industry associations and non-state bodies who have been responsible for managing the core elements of the internet architecture.
In recent years, however, there has been a concerted effort by some states, particularly China and Russia, to expand the ITU’s role, wrestling some powers away from organizations like Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. In the lead-up to the ITU secretary-general vote, ICANN CEO Göran Marby told WIRED that “if the functions of ICANN were moved to the ITU, the risk of internet fragmentation would be very real, and the interoperability of the internet would be jeopardized.”
After the election, Marby sent a letter to Bogdan-Martin, congratulating her on the win. “Like you, we believe that for the internet to be truly interoperable, it must be open to anyone, anywhere, and at any time,” Marby wrote.