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UN's ITU election may spell the end of our open internet

Russia, China believe in more national control, maybe baked into standards. Resistance is fierce - and was victorious!

Updated Every four years, the United Nations' International Telecommunication Union (ITU) stages a Plenipotentiary Conference at which member states decide how the organization will steer the development of communications technologies.

The event is usually only of interest to telco and policy wonks.

But this year's event has become a geopolitical football – and possibly a turning point for internet governance – thanks to the two candidates running in an election for the position of ITU secretary-general.

The US has put forward Doreen Bogdan-Martin for the gig. She's an ITU veteran with years of experience working with global telecoms regulators. She also believes that current internet governance models need not change – bodies like the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) should be left to work on standards and technologies pertaining to the 'net, and the ITU should do its thing regarding international co-operation.

Russia has nominated Rashid Ismailov for the job. A former deputy minister at Russia's Ministry of Telecom and Mass Communication, Ismailov has also worked for Huawei.

Smashed glass

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Speaking of Huawei, in 2019 it and China Mobile, China Unicom, and China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), did something unexpected: submit a proposal to the ITU for a standard called New IP (as in, Internet Protocol, the standard that helps glue our modern communications together). The entities behind New IP claimed it is needed because existing protocols don't include sufficient quality-of-service guarantees, so netizens will struggle to handle latency-sensitive future applications, and also because current standards lack intrinsic security.

New IP is controversial for two reasons.

One is that the ITU does not oversee IP. That's the IETF's job. The IETF is a multi-stakeholder organization that accepts ideas from anywhere – the QUIC protocol that's potentially on the way to replacing TCP originated at Google but was developed into a standard by the IETF. The ITU is a United Nations body so represents nation-states.

The other is that 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.

New IP is of interest to those who like the idea of a "sovereign internet" such as China's, on which the government conducts pervasive surveillance and extensive censorship.

China argues it can do as it pleases within its borders. But if New IP gathers support it has the potential to make some of the controls China uses on its local internet part of global protocols.

Another nation increasingly interested in a sovereign internet is Russia, which was not particularly tolerant of free speech before its illegal invasion of Ukraine and has since implemented sweeping censorship across its patch of the internet.

Great Hall of the People, seat of Communist party government in Beijing, China. Photo by Shutterstock

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The possibility of Rashid Ismailov being elected ITU boss, and potentially driving adoption of censorship-enabling tech like New IP around the world, therefore has plenty of people worried – not least because in 2021 Russia and China issued a joint statement that called for "all States [to] 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 statement includes a call "to enhance the role of the International Telecommunication Union and strengthen the representation of the two countries in its governing bodies."

In an email to The Register sent in a personal capacity, Lars Eggert, chair of the IETF, stated: "I personally would wish for the ITU to reaffirm its commitment to the consensus-based multi-stakeholder model that has been the foundation for the success of the Internet, and is at the heart of the open standards development model the IETF and other standards developing organizations follow when improving the overall Internet architecture and its protocol components."

He added, "I personally would like to see an ITU leadership emerge that strengthens the ITU's commitment to the above-mentioned approach to Internet evolution.”

Eggert pointed out an official IETF response to New IP that criticizes its potential for central control and argues that existing IETF processes and projects already address the issues the China-derived proposal seeks to address.

The Internet Society, the non-profit that promotes open internet development, is also concerned about the proceedings at the ITU event.

"Plenipotentiary-22 could be a turning point for the Internet," the organization stated in a mail to The Register. "The multi-stakeholder Internet governance model and principles are being called into question by some ITU Member States and there are multilateral processes aiming to position governments as the main decision-makers regarding Internet governance."

The society told The Register: "Internet technical standards must remain within the domain of the appropriate standards bodies, such as the IETF, where work that intends to update, amend, or develop Internet technical standards must be presented."

The organization is therefore "closely following the election of the new secretary-general," and stated: "We oppose any policies, measures, or movements that harm the Internet's essential characteristics – open, globally connected, secure, and trustworthy."

The election takes place on Thursday, and the Plenipotentiary continues until October 16.

The Register has its eye on the event and will bring you more news as warranted. ®

Updated to add at 1300 UTC, September 29

The ITU has announced that Doreen Bogdan-Martin was today elected secretary-general after winning 139 of the 172 votes cast.​​

The secretary-general-elect has pledged “to continue driving this institution to be innovative and increasingly relevant for our Member States, better positioning all of us to embrace the digital environment and make progress on achieving UN Sustainable Development Goals and connecting the unconnected."

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