This Vote Could Change the Course of Internet History


The Russian candidate to replace him, Ismailov, is no stranger to China’s international policy: He spent three years as a regional vice president at Huawei. From there, Ismailov rose through the ranks of the Russian Ministry of Telecom and Mass Communications before joining Nokia and later Russian telecommunications firm PJSC VimpelCom.

Beijing and Moscow have made no secret of the fact that they’re on the same page at the ITU.

A 2021 pact between Beijing and Moscow committed both countries to flexing their muscle when it comes to international technology governance, with an eye to “preserving the sovereign right of States to regulate the national segment of the Internet.”

“Russia and China emphasize the need to enhance the role of the International Telecommunication Union and strengthen the representation of the two countries in its governing bodies,” the agreement concludes.

Ismailov has been transparent that his view of the organization stands in stark contrast to that of his American competitor.

“Americans are, perhaps, allergic to everyone who has anything to do with Huawei,” Ismailov said in his official, 30-minute campaign video. “I don’t understand why this has happened.” He added that the “demonization” of the Chinese company was done, in his view, “out of fear of competition.”

While Ismailov said he would “strive to avoid this politicization” of the organization, he also pledged to defend Russia against consequences levied for its war in Ukraine.

“I want to make sure that the organization focuses more on its actual objectives—frequencies standardization, etc,” he said, through a translator, in his campaign video. “Of course this won’t be totally possible because technology is now an integral part of our everyday life, including geopolitics. We are seeing this with the sanctions that are being imposed. Russia is being pressured in all international organizations—some want to strip it of its voting rights, others want to expel Russia.”

In a press conference in May, Ukraine’s head of the State Special Communications Service, Yurii Shchyhol, said his country had moved to sanction Russia at the ITU as a denouncement of its invasion of Ukraine—what Ismailov euphemistically refers to as a “special military operation.”

If she wins, Bodgan-Martin will be the first woman to lead the ITU—she will also be the first American to lead the organization since 1965. While the State Department says Bodgan-Martin’s candidacy is a matter of having “the right candidate at the right time,” her bid for the job is no accident.

Houlin’s first candidacy for the secretary-general position, in 2014, went unopposed. In 2017, the Trump administration unveiled its National Security Strategy: a hodgepodge of tactics to counter China’s rising influence in the world. In it, the White House identified the protection of a free and open internet as a top priority and set “active engagement in key organizations” as necessary measures, mentioning the ITU by name.

Yet at the 2018 ITU Plenipotentiary Conference, Houlin again ran unopposed—his re-election bid was supported by 176 of the 178 countries present.

Ahead of the vote on September 29, at this year’s conference in Bucharest, the United States seems to be taking the race seriously. Members from the American delegation, as well as a senior official at the State Department who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Bodgan-Martin has been campaigning intensely. A litany of photos posted to Twitter, and a surprisingly active hashtag, show her meeting with technical and civil society groups around the world.


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