For the billions of digital devices that people the world over use each day, technical standards provide rules that ensure a device produced in one country can run software developed in a second country, on networks located in a third country. These rules are established in international standards organizations (ISOs), and the leadership of these organizations is critical to ensuring that a transparent, values-based set of principles is in effect, and that a level playing field exists for all companies to participate. Authoritarian states, like China and Russia, have worked to take control of such organizations over the past two decades. To wit, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is holding leadership elections this week at its Plenipotentiary Conference in Budapest, and as Russia floats a candidate to take over the top position from a Chinese official, the United States and its allies need to ensure that the candidate who is more likely to enforce the right principles wins.

The ITU was established more than 150 years ago after the invention of the telegraph to facilitate communications between disparate national communication systems. It quickly grew to encompass broader radio and telephone network issues, and eventually all forms of telecommunications. Ensuring independent control of the ITU is critical for two reasons.

First, consistent international standards help to facilitate international trade and contribute to economic growth. Industrialized and “informationalized” countries like the United States have historically been leaders in standards setting to ensure a free and competitive environment for the development and sale of products. This effort significantly impacts national security — the United States’ ability to pursue strategic objectives is inextricably linked to its economic competitiveness, and to the extent that standards participation benefits U.S. economic power, it benefits U.S. national security interests.

Second, standards participation provides a venue for countries to promote or discourage certain values. Though scientific in nature, standards significantly affect the values that are protected in technical designs. China’s growing influence in standards bodies, for instance, threatens human rights and privacy in the information and communications technology (ICT) ecosystem, as can be seen in efforts by Chinese technology firms to shape technical standards related to facial recognition and surveillance. These surveillance technologies have been fundamental to China’s repression of ethnic Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region, and China looks to export these technologies to other authoritarian states. While countries could import Chinese technology regardless of the ITU’s adoption of any specific standard, the inclusion of repressive technologies in internationally adopted standards would certainly help these technologies become the norm.

The ITU was initially a boring place, doing boring (but important) work. Over the past two decades however, China has worked to gain control of the ITU, and other ISOs, in order to promote Chinese companies and interests. Lately, China has also tried to expand the ITUs remit to include internet standards, as these are currently controlled by a non-governmental body that China has struggled to manipulate.

From Chinese Secretary-General to Russian?

The current leader of the ITU is a Chinese official named Houlin Zhao, who has used his role to promote Chinese companies and policies. His actions are so brazen that analysts wrote even two years ago that “[i]t is extraordinary for an international civil servant to shill blatantly for a company from his home country the way Zhao is doing for Huawei, or to so boldly endorse initiatives of his home country the way Zhao has championed China’s Belt and Road Initiative. It is even rarer when those statements involve official responsibilities.”

As Zhao’s term comes to an end, it would be unusual for another Chinese leader to gain support, as the organization generally seeks to vary the representation in its leadership among the membership. But a similarly authoritarian regime, Russia, is looking to take the secretary-general post with its nominee, Rashid Ismailov. He has worked in both the Russian government and in Russian and international telecommunications companies. Running against him is Doreen Bogdan-Martin, an American who is a career ITU official.

While Ismailov has worked with Russian companies and international companies like Nokia, Ericsson, and Huawei, it is his work for the Russian government that should prompt questions about his commitment to international principles like transparency and rules-based systems. In 2014, Ismailov was appointed as vice-minister of telecom and mass communications of the Russian Federation. Ismailov has said he intends to lead the ITU in creating initiatives to prioritize individuals’ well-being, but that would run counter to both apparent Russian policy and his own record. The Russian government, to say the least, has a spotty record in terms of how it treats information and personal privacy, and Ismailov’s own experience includes serving as CEO of a company that installed devices that ensured all Russian internet traffic was filtered through sovereign internet infrastructure.

In fact, Russia is notorious for its opposition to free speech and for regulations that violate privacy and tighten control over online content. In 2019, Putin signed the “sovereign internet law” allowing Russia to restrict social media platforms to protect Russia’s “digital sovereignty.” This legislation allows the Kremlin to further restrict social media platforms and the influence of American social media specifically. The new laws theoretically allow Russia to impose fines on platforms that do not block forbidden content such as calls for suicide, child pornography, or information on drug use, but in reality, these laws allow Putin to remove content that contradicts Russian interests or fails to parrot the Kremlin’s talking points.

Moscow also banned virtual private networks, which serve to protect the privacy of customers. The Russian government plans to cut Russia off from the global internet and use the homegrown “Ru-Net” instead, following the China model. The Russians have previously made it clear they would like to use the ITU to establish favorable controls over the internet, There is not a long history of Russian officials serving in international organizations and working at cross purposes with Putin’s principles, so it is hard to imagine Ismailov having the inclination, or opportunity, to push for transparency and rules-based systems that prioritize personal rights. Any Russian’s candidacy must be seen as a package deal with Vladimir Putin.

Alternate Candidate

On the other hand, the alternate candidate, Bogdan-Martin, is a career international official and has been serving as the director or member of the ITU’s Development Bureau since the early 2000s and her work has focused on global equity initiatives. She has spearheaded both the ITU’s donations to the EQUALS Global Partnership for Gender Equality in the Digital Age and the ITU’s partnership with UNICEF on its Giga project on connecting schools internationally.  The United States has come out strong in support of her candidacy

Given the criticality of the ITU to national security and U.S. values of transparency and freedom, and the stark choice in candidates, the U.S. needs take action to ensure the election of Bogdan-Martin, not because she is an American, but because her campaign for election is based on exactly the necessary principles of transparency and fact-based leadership.

When confronted with a similarly stark choice in 2020, the Trump administration corralled U.S. allies and partners to ensure the pro-transparency candidate was elected. In that case, it was a vote for the directorship of the World Intellectual Property Organization, and the United States was able to ensure that Daren Kang of Singapore defeated Wang Binying of China. The United States did a superb job of working overseas capitals and successfully wrangled votes thanks to ambassadors and cabinet members gathering a coalition of allies and partners to support the candidate most committed to transparency and a rules-based system.

As the United States and its like-minded allies look at this impending ITU election, a similarly aggressive effort is needed, and this should be the number one priority this week for every U.S. overseas mission. At the same time, the Biden administration should continue to insist on similar efforts from allies.

While ITU elections rarely make international headlines, the power wielded by whomever is elected this week will have global impact. If the United States and its allies do not stand by principles of transparency now, defending them later will only prove more difficult. As technology continues to advance, it has never been more important to preserve a digital space that is beneficial for all.

IMAGEs: (Left image) Russian nominee Rashid Ismailov (right) shaking hands with current ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao, and American alternative candidate Doreen Bogdan-Martin (right) with Houlin. (Courtesy ITU Pictures via Flickr)