While Bogdan-Martin’s win was significant, the down-ballot races also seemed to indicate a rejection of this expanded ITU mandate. A Russian incumbent lost his spot on the ITU’s radio regulatory board, while Russia was shut out of a seat on a broader regulatory council. Iran, which runs one of the world’s most expansive and authoritarian internet-filtering systems, also lost its council seat.
While China fared better, its support declined considerably. In 2018, Houlin Zhao was elected secretary-general with no competition—in 2022, a Chinese candidate came third in a race for a lesser position, only narrowly securing him a spot on the board.
Some of these successes are undoubtedly a result of American reengagement; the Trump White House first announced a plan to prioritize organizations like the ITU, which had been ignored by Washington for years, in 2017, in order to counteract China’s increasing success at these international bodies. Over the past year, President Joe Biden energetically campaigned for Bogdan-Martin’s candidacy.
Geopolitics—and Russia’s war against Ukraine, in particular—undoubtedly helped reshape the ITU’s leadership.
When Bella Cherkesova, a Russian deputy minister, stood to address the conference, she railed against the United States and its allies. “Recently, at the behest of certain countries, we have been confronting the politicization of the Union’s work,” Cherkesova said, lamenting that fully a third of Russia’s delegates had their visas rejected and could not attend the conference and that other Russian officials were not nominated to various administrative posts.
Cherkesova went on to laud Moscow’s promotion of the internet. “Russia provides security, protection of public order, health and morals of the population on the internet,” she said.
In a dueling speech, one of Ukraine’s representatives to the ITU offered a poignant counterpoint. “Representatives of the aggressor country are also here and talk about progress and standards,” Yurii Shchyhol, chair of the State Service of Special Communications and Information Protection of Ukraine, told the conference. “We have to defend ourselves.”
Shchyhol added that Russia had “turned into a weapon” the basic technology that the ITU is tasked with regulating and expanding. “Today, seven months after the invasion, we understand that the Russian Federation has also sought to destroy the connection in Ukraine,” Shchyhol continued, listing a variety of ways in which Russia has allegedly violated ITU rules.
While think tanks like CSIS and the Heritage Foundation have encouraged American engagement at the ITU to be focused on counteracting China, analysts more intimately involved in the ITU say the fight is more complicated—and, they say, this month’s meeting lacked ambition.
In its analysis of the proposals up for debate at the conference, the Internet Society, a nonprofit that promotes open technology, expressed disappointment that the ITU did not codify more formal cooperation with organizations like ICANN, nor did it make additional space for researchers and non-governmental organizations.
The Center for Democracy & Technology’s Knodel, who was also part of the American delegation, says inviting advocates like her has “made the ITU vastly more open than it once was. However, nongovernment stakeholders are far from welcomed at the ITU, which in the internet age is a stark contrast to the governance fora that are largely responsible for internet standardization and the cooperation required for implementing its decentralized design.”
While states like China are “proposing more technical designs that centralize control and surveillance,” Knodel says, even many of those discussions were sidestepped at the most recent conference.
Other big issues, like how to handle fees paid to countries that handle the fiber optic cables that make up the backbone of the internet—which could undercut revenues for poorer countries—have also been left unresolved.
Knodel says, with this new ITU leadership in place, the priority for the future should be figuring out “how to extend meaningful access to the internet rather than eroding it.”