from the isn't-one-enough? dept
Ten years ago, Techdirt was one of the few sites to be following closely some obscure but important machinations at the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to create a top-down regulatory scheme for the Internet. The fact that the two main proponents of this move were Russia and China gives an idea of the underlying intentions. Had the plan succeeded, it would have granted governments greater control over the parts of the Internet within their borders, including domain names, ISPs, traffic management etc. Fortunately, the final 2012 treaty was something of a damp squib, since many key players, including the US and EU countries, refused to sign.
Since then, things have gone relatively quiet on the ITU front. However, an interesting paper from Justin Sherman warns that Russia never gave up on the idea of increasing government control online, and is quietly making a renewed push for the ITU to assume a far greater role in running the Internet:
This report examines Moscow’s efforts to move Internet governance processes and authorities to the UN’s information and communications technologies agency, the International Telecommunication Union, instead of permitting multistakeholder bodies that include civil society, nonprofits, and corporations to have a major role. This report draws on Russian primary-source documents and media, ITU documents, and other sources to describe and analyze Russia’s strategic view of the Internet, Russia’s historical efforts in the ITU, and Russia’s campaign for its candidate to take over the ITU secretary-general position in September 2022.
The report provides a handy history of Russian efforts to promote the ITU, including what has been happening since 2012:
Russia has continued pushing this line about the ITU controlling Internet governance well after the 2012 proposal failed. In 2015, Nikolay Nikiforov, Russia’s Minister of Communications, said “the Internet’s vital infrastructure should be managed by existing international organizations, for example, within the United Nations or by the International Telecommunication Union.” Later that year, Dmitry Medvedev, then-Prime Minister and former President of Russia, repeated the same line: “strengthening of the international community’s role in managing the Internet, as well as the development of a global Internet strategy” must be done “under the aegis of leading international institutions, including the United Nations and the International Telecommunication Union.”
In April 2021 Russia announced its candidate for the ITU secretary-general position: Rashid Ismailov, the president of VimpelCom, one of Russia’s largest wireless and telecom operators, former Deputy Minister of Russia’s Ministry of Communications, and former executive at Chinese telecom Huawei. As Sherman explains:
While Ismailov’s platform references organizations like the Internet Engineering Task Force, it reflects the Russian government’s perspective: the ITU should be a centralizing and coordinating force for Internet governance, even if other entities remain involved.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has complicated its plans somewhat. The ITU member countries voted to exclude Russia from certain study groups and leadership roles, as Sherman notes. Undeterred:
days after governments voted against Russian delegates in the [World Telecommunication Standardization Assembly] and ITU, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov said, “the most important thing for us is to promote the candidacies of Russian representatives to the governing bodies of the International Telecommunication Union: Rashid Ismailov for election as Secretary General of the International Telecommunication Union and Nikolay Varlamov for reelection as a member of the new composition of the committee of the Radio Regulations Board during the elections at the Plenipotentiary Conference in 2022.
There is a rival for the post of ITU Secretary General, the US candidate Doreen Bogdan-Martin. For most people the vote is likely to pass completely unnoticed, and yet the outcome could have a significant impact on everyone using the Internet. Watch this space.