In a contest seen as geopolitically symbolic amid wider US-Russia tensions and as an answer to fears of growing censorship online by authoritarian regimes, the United States has soundly defeated Russia in an election to control a United Nations body responsible for shaping global internet development.
The International Telecommunication Union agreed on Thursday to approve Doreen Bogdan-Martin, a candidate endorsed by the United States, to the position of secretary general.
On April 14, 2020, in Moscow, Russia, a pedestrian examines her phone.
Born in New Jersey, Bogdan-Martin has spent nearly 30 years working for the ITU and just defeated her main competitor, Rashid Ismailov, with 139 votes to Ismailov’s 172. In the end, just 25 people voted for Ismailov. Bogdan-Martin will make history as the organization’s first female director.
Bogdan-Martin said Thursday on Twitter, “Humbled & pleased to be elected @ITU Secretary-General & appreciative for the faith & confidence Member States placed in me.” “Ready to head an ITU that inspires, includes, and innovates so that people worldwide can tap into the transformative power of #digital.”
A number of US officials had campaigned hard for Bogdan-Martin prior to the vote, with some even describing it as a watershed moment for the free and open internet, principles that are increasingly under threat from Russia and China as those countries clamp down on the digital freedoms of their citizens.
To make the internet “open and accessible for everyone, especially in the developing world,” Vice President Joe Biden argued this week that UN member states should back Bogdan-Martin as head of the ITU.
The election was a microcosm of the larger ideological divides that exist regarding the future of the internet, with the United States and its allies favoring a highly interconnected system governed equally at the international level by UN member states, businesses, civil society groups, and technical experts.
Policy experts had predicted that a Russian victory would lead to a consolidation of power under national countries to establish rules and standards for telecommunications infrastructure within their borders, including everything from cellphones and satellites to the internet.
Russia and China published a joint statement last year advocating for greater representation for the two countries at the ITU and reiterating their dedication to “protecting the sovereign authority of States to control the national segment of the Internet.”
The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, an American tech advocacy group, interpreted Bogdan-landslide Martin’s victory as evidence that few people share Russia and China’s vision for the internet.
ITIF added, “Her election by ITU member states indicates the international interest in making sure that technology and the policies surrounding it empower citizens rather than becoming an instrument of control for authoritarian governments.”
An official from the United States has called this fight for digital human rights and the free flow of information online “a critical aspect of the wider war between authoritarian governments and democracies,” and the United States has joined 55 other countries in making this pledge this year.
This year, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, worries about a nascent “splinternet” (a digital world divided into democratic and anti-democratic sectors) were amplified. Russia blocked major Western social media platforms like Facebook in the early weeks of the conflict and threatened incarceration for anybody who provided facts countering the Kremlin’s narrative about the war.
As a result, there has been a surge in interest in software that can hide the location of a user’s internet traffic in Russia or allow them to access blocked content.