The International Telecommunications Union isn’t well-known, but it’s one of the most important multilateral bodies in the world. The ITU is the forum in which nations come together to set technological standards which govern the global telecommunications ecosystem – including the internet. Rules set at the ITU are what allow digital technologies to function across borders on everything from cell phone signals to satellites.
But just as it has done at another UN agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is using its leadership at the ITU to advance its own agenda – not constructively engage with all technological stakeholders to produce rules designed to serve all nations well. As a report released this week by the Heritage Foundation explains:
“Houlin Zhao is completing his second term as Secretary-General. During his tenure, he has deepened and institutionalized ties between the ITU and Beijing, endorsed the Belt and Road Initiative, and increased Chinese employment in the organization. China also sends the largest delegations to ITU study groups and has flooded them with proposed specifications and contributions…The goal is to make Chinese standards global standards and thereby give Chinese companies greater market share, increased revenues, and the inside track on next-generation technologies.”
Bottom line: It’s easy for Chinese tech giants to win the global tech competition when CCP apparatchiks are abusing their power to set the rules of the game.
Just as concerning is China’s history at the ITU of lobbying for a more authoritarian-friendly internet structure. China has pushed a plan called the New IP, which essentially seeks to give governments more power to control a user’s internet access and track his or her online activity (China uses the Orwellian term of building “intrinsic security” into the web). In the same way that Lenovo and other Chinese tech companies do the bidding of communist overlords in Beijing, Chinese tech behemoth Huawei has been one of the chief proponents of the New IP proposal at the ITU. Thus, China’s efforts to manipulate international standards-setting bodies don’t just give Chinese companies an unfair business edge. China is trying to position those companies to, in the words of Mark Montgomery and Theo Lebryk “integrate China’s social credit, surveillance, and censorship regimes into the internet’s architecture.”
So what to do? Nations and businesses need to seize the opportunity for new leadership at the ITU to reverse the China tide. In October of this year the ITU will meet at its annual Plenipotentiary Conference to elect a new Secretary General. Supporting the candidacy of American candidate Doreen Bogdan-Martin is essential for all stakeholders who believe in a free and open internet and a fair-standards setting process. As the first woman in the 150+ year history of the ITU to hold a leadership post (Director of the Telecommunication Development Bureau), Bogdan-Martin would bring more than thirty years of experience to the ITU Secretariat. In addition to her track record of pushing for greater transparency and accountability for the ITU’s internal processes, she has exerted leadership in championing telecommunications access for women and children, most notably by supporting ITU’s EQUALS Global Partnership for Gender Equality in the Digital Age and organizing the ITU’s first Youth Summit. The U.S. State Department has written, “She uniquely combines deep knowledge of the ITU, a member-driven focus, strong leadership, uncompromising integrity, and a collaborative style.” A vote for Bogdan-Martin is a vote for women and against digital authoritarianism.
By contrast, ceding the ITU’s top job to Russian Federation candidate Rashid Ismailov – previously an executive at Huawei – will be a vote for an authoritarian-friendly internet. It’s not too late to stop dictators from shaping the digital rules of the 21st century.