Controlling the Internet: The United States wins a precious battle at the UN

On paper, the title of the elections being played on September 29 in Bucharest did not make people dream. It is up to the UN to choose the next head of its telecommunications agency, the ITU. In fact, the role of this institution is major as it sets global standards in the fields of mobile phone, television and the Internet. And the two candidates in the race presented a different vision for the world of communications. Finally, the American Doreen Bogdan-Martin was elected, with 139 votes in favor, against 25 of the Russian Rashid Ismailov. She is the first woman to hold this position.

The winning candidate, chosen by the United States, was known to the organization, as it is responsible for its development. Doreen Bogdan-Martin joined the ITU in 1993 and became its director in 2019. Her vision for the Internet differed greatly from that of her competitor, former Russian Deputy Minister of Telecommunications Rashid Ismailov. It wants to connect most of the world to the Internet and expand broadband access. To date, 3.7 billion people are not connected. Also, Doreen Bogdan-Martin wants to understand the challenges and complexities of future technologies, such as the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and machine learning, in order to make them useful and controlled tools.

Two different visions of the Internet

The vision presented by Rashid Ismailov was less internationalist. The former chairman of the IUT Council and current head of the Russian telecommunications company VimpelCom was wary of over-expanding technologies. Emphasizing the harmful effects these can have on humans, he advocated a more measured development. Above all, he wanted the digital world to be freed from American dominance and its companies, so that each country could “protect its sovereignty”. A belief that is part of political logic of the Kremlin, but also of other countries, such as Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, which do not hesitate to cut off their population’s access to the Internet during elections or social unrest. As early as 2011, Vladimir Putin declared his intention “to establish international control over the Internet”, using tracking capabilities and ITU supervision. Unwilling to play on Russian-American rivalry, despite the context of the war in Ukraine and the idea, once considered, to prevent a Russian candidacy, Doreen Bogdan-Martin called for “putting aside divisions in the interest of all peoples “.

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Founded in 1865 as the International Telegraph Union, the ITU joined the United Nations in 1947. Its original purpose was to manage international telegraph networks, before seeing it expand significantly with the development of the means of communication: the telephone, radio, television, satellites, mobile phones and Page. To define itself, what is now called the International Telecommunication Union uses a formula with the power of simplicity: “Every time you make a mobile phone call, access the Internet or send an e-mail, you benefit from the work of the ITU.”

Setting global standards for all these means of communication, this organization – consisting of 193 countries and 900 university or organizational actors – presents itself as one of the most strategic to control. US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, also did not hide the importance of these elections, since they constituted “a priority for the United States”. The current Secretary General, Houlin Zhao of China, is completing his second four-year term this year. Doreen Bogdan-Martin will therefore take over next year.


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