Open Internet at stake in UN ITU Secretary General election • The Register

Every four years, the United Nations International Telecommunication Union (ITU) holds a plenipotentiary conference where member states decide how the organization will steer the development of communications technologies.

The event is usually only of interest to telecom and political clouds.

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

The USA has suggested Doreen Bogdan-Martin for the performance. She is an ITU veteran with years of experience working with global telecom authorities. She also believes that current Internet governance models do not need to change – bodies like the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) should be left to work on standards and technologies for the Internet, and the ITU should do its thing on the matter do on international cooperation.

Russia has nominated Rashid Ismailov for the job. A former deputy minister in the Russian Ministry of Telecommunications and Mass Communications, Ismailov has also worked for Huawei.

Shattered glass

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Speaking of Huawei, in 2019, it and China Mobile, China Unicom, and the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) did something unexpected: a Suggestion to the ITU for a standard called New IP to replace the Internet Protocol. The entities behind New IP claimed it was necessary because existing protocols do not provide sufficient quality of service guarantees that Internet users will struggle to deal with latency-sensitive future applications, and also because current standards lack intrinsic security.

New intellectual property rights are controversial for two reasons.

One is that the ITU does not monitor IP (like in the Internet Protocol, the standard that helps tie our modern communications together). That is the job of the IETF. The IETF is a multi-stakeholder organization that accepts ideas from anywhere – the QUIC protocol, which may be on the way to replacing TCP, originated with Google but was developed into a standard by the IETF. The ITU is a body of the United Nations and thus represents the nation states.

The other is that New IP proposes a “Many Networks” or “ManyNets” approach to global internetworking, in which different, individual networks are allowed to set their own rules for access to systems and content. Some of the rules envisaged under New IP could require individuals to register for network access and allow centralized control – even shutdowns – of traffic on a national network.

New intellectual property rights are of interest to those who like the idea of ​​a “sovereign internet” like China’s, where the government carries out pervasive surveillance and extensive censorship.

China argues that it can do whatever it wants within its borders. But New IP 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 prior to its illegal invasion of Ukraine, and has since instituted blanket censorship across its entire span of the internet.

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

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The possibility of Rashid Ismailov being elected ITU chief and possibly spurring the rollout of censorship-enabling new intellectual property around the world has therefore worried many people – not least because Russia and China will have a 2021 Joint Statement which “all states” demanded [to] have equal rights to participate in global network governance, to strengthen their role in that process, and to uphold the sovereign right of states to regulate the national portion of the Internet.”

The statement includes a call to “strengthen the role of the International Telecommunication Union and strengthen the representation of the two countries on their governing bodies.”

In an email to The registry Lars Eggert, Chair of the IETF, said in a personal capacity: “Personally, I would like to see the ITU reaffirm its commitment to the consensus-based, multi-stakeholder model that is the foundation for the Internet’s success and is at the heart of the development model for open standards, which the IETF and other standards development organizations follow when improving the overall Internet architecture and its protocol components.”

He added: “Personally, I would welcome the emergence of an ITU leadership that strengthens the ITU’s commitment to the above approach to developing the Internet.”

Eggert pointed to an official IETF answer on New IP, which 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 organization promoting the development of the open Internet, is also concerned about the outcome of the ITU event.

“Proxy 22 could be a game changer for the internet,” the organization said in an email The registry. “The multi-stakeholder internet governance model and principles are being challenged by some ITU member states and there are multilateral processes aimed at positioning governments as key decision-makers regarding internet governance.”

Society tells The registry: “Internet technical standards must remain in the realm of the appropriate standardization bodies, such as the IETF, where work intended to update, amend, or evolve Internet technical standards must be submitted.”

The organization is therefore “closely following the election of the new Secretary General” and stated: “We reject any policy, measure or movement that damages the essential characteristics of the Internet – open, globally connected, secure and trustworthy”.

The election will take place on Thursday and the proxy will last until October 16.

The registry is keeping an eye on the event and will bring you more updates as needed. ® Open Internet at stake in UN ITU Secretary General election • The Register

Laura Coffey

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