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Digital great game: The West’s standoff against China and Russia

The wonky world of global tech standards is usually far from a “Game of Thrones” melodrama. But ahead of a critical election at a key United Nations agency later this month, the world’s top telecommunications and government officials have all embraced their inner Khaleesi.

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) — a 150-year-old body that sets rules for how much of the global telecom and tech infrastructure works — will gather at end of September in Bucharest for a three-week conference. The more than 190 member countries will elect a new secretary-general and other top brass, as well as set the policy goals for the U.N. agency for the next four years. The two candidates for the top job, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, an American, and Rashid Ismailov, a Russian, have crisscrossed the globe to rally support from telecom policymakers and regulators.

A lot is on the line. The ITU has become ground zero in a battle for how internet networks work — everything from next-generation mobile networks to potential worldwide rules for autonomous cars.

“Everybody is trying to advance the technology for their own interests,” Malcolm Johnson, the ITU’s outgoing deputy secretary-general and former British regulator, told reporters Wednesday.

In one corner stand the European Union, United States and other Western democracies that support a more free-for-all version of the internet. They defend a core belief that countries should not dictate how the digital world is run and push for the involvement of nonprofit organizations and companies in how these rules are created.

In the other is China, Russia and other authoritarian countries. They have consistently called for a model that would place politicians in the driver’s seat over tech standards to give governments the final say over what can appear online. They have targeted the ITU — a U.N. agency where countries dominate over other entities — as a central lobbying venue to push their agenda, which, if successful, would overturn the version of the internet that has existed for the last 40 years.

“China has clearly been able to use the internet for the effect of social scoring,” said Tom Wheeler, a former chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, in reference to how Beijing has used people’s online data to keep tabs on their offline behavior. “The question becomes, ‘Do you want to restructure the internet so as to cause that?’ I think that’s the change that’s happening here.”

Horse-trading for votes

The ITU’s leadership race is an opaque world that makes even the votes to host FIFA’s World Cup soccer tournament look transparent in comparison.

But this time, the U.S.-Russia standoff over who will run the agency has raised the stakes and gained attention beyond the in-crowd at the Geneva-based body.

Bogdan-Martin, a longtime ITU official, finds herself as the poster child for the West’s vision of the internet. Her opponent, Rashid Ismailov, is Russia’s former telecom minister and a longtime industry executive who’s worked for European heavy-hitters Nokia and Ericsson.

It’s not just their opposing views on global tech rules that separate them. Bogdan-Martin and Ismailov have also become unwitting representatives of the two sides pitted against each other in Russia’s war on Ukraine. During an ITU conference earlier this year, for instance, Moscow’s candidates for several of the agency’s standards committees were excluded because of the war in Ukraine — an unprecedented move.

Bogdan-Martin declined to comment for this article, while Ismailov did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But POLITICO talked to more than a dozen diplomats from Western countries and across the Global South, almost all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal ITU deliberations, and officials were still unclear who would become the agency’s top official.

To win, a candidate needs at least 50 percent of the votes when officials of the member countries cast their ballots on September 29-30. Election rounds continue until one official is left standing.

In a sign of greater transatlantic cooperation, Washington is supporting Brussels’ pick for the body’s deputy secretary, Tomas Lamanauskas, a former Lithuanian telecom official, while the 27-country bloc is similarly backing the U.S. candidate. In a internal document outlining the EU’s position on the upcoming election, obtained by POLITICO, the bloc pushed back against expanding the ITU’s role into other global standards, reaffirmed the need to include nongovernmental organizations in these talks, and raised concerns about how some within the U.N. agency were using the process to undermine global privacy standards.

Yet two diplomats from nonaligned countries said Russia had been pressing the flesh with governments that had shown interest in more control over digital standards. Moscow used its decades of political connections across the Global South to lean on would-be supporters with the promise of greater sovereignty over their own affairs in a U.N. system still often dominated by the U.S. and Europe.

“There is a fear that the Russian candidate might win and that we cannot let it happen,” said a European diplomat. “The question is if Russia can convince African countries to vote.”

For now, Beijing favors Moscow’s candidate, according to three of the diplomats involved in the horse-trading. But that strategy was not so clear cut: “China doesn’t want an American at the top of the ITU. But it also doesn’t want to be publicly siding with Russia” after the invasion of Ukraine, said one of the officials, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Below the surface, there’s China

Russia may be running for the ITU’s top job, but China, whose official, Houlin Zhao, is the agency’s outgoing secretary-general, is never too far away.

In the years leading up to this month’s vote, the world’s second-largest economy has foregone brash public statements favored by Moscow. Instead, it has pursued a well-resourced and widespread targeting of key, but low-ranking, positions in global digital standards agencies to push its own agenda, according to five government officials, three industry executives and four officials from nonprofit organizations involved in these meetings.

There are at least two Chinese officials — some government regulators, some corporate executives — in the ITU’s myriad working groups, which help to set the agency’s agenda, based on POLITICO’s review of the agency’s structure. At the 3rd Generation Partnership Project, another tech-standards body, Beijing also has 19 leadership positions in its committees compared with 12 for the U.S. and 14 for all EU countries, based on POLITICO’s analysis.

China has clear goals. It has repeatedly put forward proposals known as “new IP” at the U.N. agency, mostly driven by the country’s effort to boost its domestic tech sector. The technology, which, if successful, would be baked into internet infrastructure, would require people to register themselves to gain access to online services and would allow governments to turn off parts of the internet almost instantaneously.

Despite Beijing’s best efforts, those proposals have so far fallen flat.

The latest attempt, put forward by Chinese telecom giant Huawei earlier this year, was again rejected after other governments, the global civil society movement and non-Chinese companies balked at the suggestions. In response, Beijing is now parceling out those efforts into smaller, bite-sized global standards to feed them slowly into the ITU and other bodies, according to Oxford Information Labs’ Chief Executive Emily Taylor, who co-authored a report into China’s evolving tactics.

“China is taking some of the proposals that would normally be raising in the ITU to the Internet Engineering Task Force,” said Mallory Knodel, chief technology officer at Centre for Democracy & Technology, a Washington-based nonprofit organization, and member of the U.S. delegation to the upcoming ITU meeting, in reference to another standards body.

But Beijing also “gets a lot of pushback because the technical merits (of its standards) just aren’t good,” she added.

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