The International Telecommunications Union (ITU)’s quadrennial Plenipotentiary Conference is being held this week in Bucharest and has been described as a key moment in shaping the future of internet governance.
Over the years, the UN has become a battleground between US and China, reflecting their opposing view of the internet and the role of nation-states in shaping it. Regardless of the result, such ideological entrenchment within one of the most important international institutions is particularly worrying. It risks hindering the development of international governance across critical digital segments and creating barriers for companies with global operations, as well as divergent regulation and compliance requirements.
Competing visions of the internet
At the top of the agenda is the selection of a new ITU Secretary General, which is voted for by member states. The two favorites are the US and Russian candidates—Doreen Bogdan-Martin, an experienced ITU official and the first woman to head one of the agency’s three major bureaus, and the Russian candidate Rashid Ismailov, a former deputy minister in the Russian Ministry of Telecom and Mass Communications and current president of Russian telco Beeline.
The election is shaping up to be a tight battle between two competing visions of the internet. On the one hand, the US and other liberal democracies advocate for a global and open approach to the internet, which draws on democratic principles such as the rights to freedom of opinion and privacy and applies them to the digital space. On the other hand, there is a centralized vision of the internet emphasizing state control aimed at undercutting foreign competitors, boosting national champions, and ensuring web censorship.
The battle around the next-generation network’s standards
The ITU was founded in 1865 as the International Telegraph Union to facilitate cross-border operations of the new technology. Since then, it has become a key standard-setter for telecommunications networks. Among the standards decided by the ITU, the next-generation network’s standards are at the center of a fierce battle between the US and China (and to a lesser extent Europe) over who decides how the technology will be deployed.
Over the last few years, China—through its lobbying at the ITU—has pushed for a redesign of the internet to replace the technological architecture that has underpinned the web so far. Many commentators have warned that if this new IP gains legitimacy at the ITU, it could well signal a splintering of the internet into two separate versions—Western and Chinese—each governed by its own rules.
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But the narrative around the open-closed internet fails to capture a more complex reality
Reducing the approaches to internet governance to just two blocs is somewhat of a simplification. The open front is far from being united, and even like-minded democracies can struggle to align around and enforce a set of norms that preserves individual privacy, openness, and accountability on the internet. At the same time, the view of a state-led internet is mainly sponsored by China and Russia.
A number of other countries like India, fall more under a hybrid model, formally embracing an open internet but increasingly resorting to shutdowns and slowdowns of the internet for nationalistic purposes. In the end, the fragmentation of the internet is a zero-sum game with economic and social costs for both autocracies and democracies. Not only do digital fences across jurisdictions risk creating barriers for companies with global operations, but divergent regulation and compliance requirements create entry barriers for businesses as well.