In the end, Putin lost, Russia lost. But democracy, digital democracy, has not moved forward at all. Putin lost, and, in particular, his allies and his ideas lost, but everything remains as it was: with eight billion people’s right to connect dictated by 10 big groups. This right remains subject to the whims of Big Tech.
Few have paid attention to it, but in recent days, in Bucharest, there was an election that could have changed a lot in our lives – most of all in the ways we communicate.
There, in the Romanian capital, the delegates of the ITU, the International Telecommunications Union, gathered for their summit which takes place every four years. In attendance were state representatives, governments – the only ones with voting rights – but also representatives of industry bodies, small delegations from civil society, and lobbyists for business – lots of them.
It was a summit that was expected to last as long as three weeks, because the most important issue was on the agenda: the election of the secretary general and other governing bodies.
It lasted less, because the U.S. candidate, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, won the vote, supported by all Western countries, with Biden himself intervening in her favor. She defeated Rashid Ismailov, Putin’s candidate – whom some called the “proxy candidate of the Chinese,” which is not quite true – a former deputy head of the Russian Ministry of Telecommunications, university professor, and holder of various positions at Ericsson and Nokia subsidiaries in Moscow.
Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
Because even though the ITU is one of those supranational bodies that no one ever talks about and no one knows about, it has great power. Enormous, in fact. It is very old: it was established all the way back in 1865, in Paris. With far fewer member countries, of course, at that time it was called the International Telegraphic Union, and it was tasked with creating – or at least trying to create – unique standards for the whole world.
It was this ancient body that decided that for distress calls worldwide, three dots, three dashes, three dots should be used: “SOS” in Morse code.
After 160 years, as one can imagine, the tasks of the ITU have changed, and have become very important. Here is where the international standards of communications, the network standards, are decided.
This is an issue that is also political, not just technical. Because at stake is how information and communication is designed, developed, put into practice, and how networks are deployed.
And on this, a fundamental clash can be seen more clearly than ever before.
It is a clash between those who want to leave things as they are – a cartel that calls itself an advocate of “the free internet” – and another group of countries, not homogeneous, with fluctuating membership, but which had a clear plan for tomorrow’s internet: a new protocol, which was supposed to replace the current one by 2030. A new system of operation that critics called the “balkanization of the internet,” a definition that conveys the essence of it. Because in that model, the internet would no longer have been horizontal, “continuous,” but would have many different centers.
They would have been connected and linkable to each other, of course, but such “centers” would allow states to intervene directly, to control – and censor – their countries. This is exactly the project presented at the ITU two years ago by the Chinese giant Huawei, which it described – on a page on its website that has recently been deleted – as the innovation that was needed especially in order to deal with rampant cybercrime. All, of course, peppered with technical explanations claiming that this new protocol would be the only one capable of working with the new ultrafast communication standards.
This project, which would make it possible to create and control so many national internets, obviously was and is of interest to the regimes that have been practicing censorship of the online space in recent years.
Against this background came the candidacy of Rashid Ismailov. He began his electoral race, working to ingratiate himself with the governments considered to be his potential constituents.
To his credit, he managed to present himself very differently from a mere gray official, and even had a campaign logo that explicitly referenced El Lissitzky’s Russian futurism, but his electoral tour was more or less backstage horse trading, which Chris Stokel-Walker, a scholar, journalist and author of the book Tik Tok Boom, China’s Dynamyte App, compared to negotiations for awarding the World Cup to a country or another.
Ismailov never explicitly talked about the “national networks” project, but made it clear that this was his agenda. At one point, a while back, he even looked like he would be able to pull it off.
Then there was the invasion of Ukraine. Several countries which had been tempted to support him took a step back. But everything still hung in the balance, so much so that not long ago, Biden himself felt he needed to speak about the race, in alarmed tones.
In the end, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, former director of ITU’s development office, won by 34 votes: 139 to 105. The first woman to lead the body, she is a somewhat inscrutable figure, who seems to hold herself above taking sides, never directly involved in political clashes.
It is worth mentioning, incidentally, that in the Bucharest elections, one of the two seats reserved for Western Europe was awarded to Italian Mauro Di Crescenzio, a longtime member of the body.
The winners’ statements were all marked by the sense of dodging a bullet: “The internet will stay away from the great firewalls,” “the internet will remain at the disposal of pluralism,” etc. – that was the tenor of the comments. No one ever mentioned China – which, in any case, seems to have changed tactics, observers say – from the unguarded Huawei-branded approach.
It is no longer going for a grand protocol transformation project, but small adjustments, small tweaks that might perhaps lead to that goal in the future.
And the Chinese did secure dozens of positions on the various technical committees, which will get to work in the coming weeks.
For now, we’ll keep the internet as it is. But there is little to celebrate.
Three billion people have no access to the internet at all, another 800 million live in countries where it would cost too much to be connected, and everything – including control tools – is being contracted out to the global giants.
On the other side of the world, groups in Silicon Valley or Beijing keep profiling users, triangulating their data, selling it or “renting” it to the police (this also happens in the United States).
No one, least of all at the ITU convention in Bucharest, has proposed to evaluate the effect of standards on people, on human rights; what these change for their freedom, for their right to know and to communicate.
“We have built an internet in such a way that it’s extractive and it’s expensive. It creates at least as many problems as it fixes,” in the words of Northern Irish scholar Maria Farrell, asked to comment on the Bucharest results.
In short, the ITU prevented the problems from getting worse, but did not solve a single one. Putin and his allies lost, but the rest remained as it is: wrong. Unequal.