How China, Russia, and their friends are using the International Telecommunication Union to impose their authoritarian internet and surveillance model on the world

US declarations of support for American candidates to top positions at international organizations are not unusual. But they rarely come from the White House, in particular about an organization referred to as “the most important UN agency you have never heard of.”

The battle for the future of the internet is raging, with Geneva at its epicenter. Next Monday, the Geneva-based International Telecommunication Union (ITU) will open its quadrennial Plenipotentiary Conference.

Houlin Zhao, the ITU’s Chinese outgoing Secretary-General, says of the upcoming conference: “Countries will unite at the ITU to set the direction of digital transformation for years to come.” His words couldn’t be truer, for top of the agenda at the conference, which will take place in Bucharest, is the election of the organization’s new Secretary-General and a slew of other important positions, all hotly disputed. Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden each have their candidate for the top position, as the contest pits American Doreen Bogdan-Martin, a veteran of the organization, against Rashid Ismailov, a former deputy minister at the Russian Ministry of Telecom. The two represent diametrically opposed and irreconcilable visions of the internet and its governance: open vs. closed, top-down and state-controlled vs. participative and bottom-up, intended to guarantee freedom of thought and expression or built to censor content and crack down on dissent.

The stakes are so high that in striving to defeat the Russian candidacy, the US and its allies and friends have been coordinating their diplomatic response and lobbying efforts for the last two years in Geneva and beyond, even prompting Joe Biden to issue a statement on Tuesday (September 20) urging the 193 members of the organization to support Doreen Bogdan-Martin’s candidacy. US declarations of support for American candidates to top positions at international organizations are not unusual. But they rarely come from the White House, in particular about an organization referred to as “the most important UN agency you have never heard of.”


On its face, ITU sets standards in telecommunications. Receiving an email or a phone call from an Android phone to your latest iPhone, moving from a 4G or 5G network; expressed in their simplest form, this seamless digital communication is what telecommunications standards permit.

But, as a recent study by Geneva-based DiploFoundation and the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation (KAS)* points out, standards also “have economic, social, and (geo)political implications.” The conflicts about standards and about the governance of internet is one more theater where global political and economic power are unfolding in the digital age.

The ITU is just one among several standards-developing organizations (SDOs). But to grasp what is at stake and the reasons for such a flurry of diplomatic activity and heightened level of confrontation, it is essential to understand why the ITU has become the main battleground in deciding the future of the internet.

The ITU is a multilateral organization, meaning that decisions are taken by states, usually by consensus or, if none is found, by a vote. As China expert Elizabeth Economy explains, “China supports a greater role for intergovernmental regulation of the internet because it grants primacy to the state in determining norm setting.”

By contrast, the US and most Western countries defend a “multistakeholder” model that includes governments, civil society, academia, business, and others. This is a continuation of the model upon which the internet was created and which has allowed it to become what it is today. In this regime, says German researcher Alina Epafinova, “states are only one of many actors involved in setting policies for the internet’s infrastructure, use and regulation. They [those states] are forced to listen to the opinions of scientists, technical specialists and the international organizations that regulate the internet’s foundational elements and facilitate the creation of international digital standards.”

From its early days, however, the internet grew mostly outside of the ITU, its standards developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).

In this context, China’s push to bring the internet under the governance of the ITU is not surprising, writes Kate Jones, an associate fellow with the International Law Programme at Chatham House and an associate of the Oxford Human Rights Hub, in a recent paper. “ITU’s multilateral, state-centric diplomacy gives China and its international allies a better shot at setting standards than multi-stakeholder SDOs would.”


China and Russia see the internet as an existential threat to their regimes, both internally and externally—a fear exacerbated in Moscow since the war in Ukraine, leading Vladimir Putin to impose massive additional censorship in the country by blocking access to Western sources of information. However, if the two countries share an aim to control the internet, they have different objectives and different methods.

China, says Australian researcher Samantha Hoffman, practices “tech-enhanced authoritarianism. […] Rather than creating fundamentally new ways of controlling populations, technology augments the [Chinese Communist] party’s standard methods of exercising authoritarian dominance,” she argues. “China’s ‘social management’ concept includes ‘opinion mining’ and ‘relationship mapping,’ achieved by amassing big data through facial and voice recognition systems and geo-localization, all forms of surveillance tested and perfected in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, where, according to the UN, ‘human rights violations amounting to crimes against humanity' may have been committed.”

Implicitly referring to Russia’s final objective, Hoffman adds that “in terms of geopolitics, some autocracies try to use technology in their wider efforts to expand their global influence and undercut the stability […] of democracies.” Internally, in late 2019, driven by a desire to create what he calls “a sovereign internet,” Vladimir Putin developed a legal framework for the centralized management of an internet wholly contained within Russia’s borders. According to Alina Epifanova, “full implementation of such a system will be extremely difficult,” but she predicts that “the regulations will increase the fragmentation of the global internet and augment Russian reliance on Chinese technology.”


The now officially joint effort by China and Russia to create an alternative, state-controlled internet has been years in the making. If successful, it would lead to what is commonly referred to as the “splinternet”: a balkanized internet wherein some countries would isolate themselves behind a sort of global digital Iron Curtain.

The most controversial and disputed attempt so far to change the nature of the internet—and, ipso facto, its governance—was Beijing’s 2019 bid to push ITU to adopt a different internet architecture—and to have Chinese giant Huawei build it. In its presentation to the ITU in September 2019, revealed by the Financial Times a few months later, China argued that the internet in its existing form had become technically obsolete and insisted that its sole aim was to build a new system that would integrate the latest state-of-the-art digital developments.

China makes the development of standards a priority of its foreign policy. The Digital Silk Road (DSR) policy is designed to implement the digital element of its Belt and Road Initiative—a global infrastructure development strategy—using Chinese standards.

For Western countries, changing the current internet governance by giving it to the ITU is simply unacceptable, as it would “de-democratize” it. Doing so would also mean that New IP would be legitimized and recognized as a trade-protected standard, and Governments could choose to deploy either a Chinese or a Western version of the internet. With its punishing standards, the former would mean citizens of these countries would not be free to choose their content or their applications. They could also see their access to the net entirely cut off or diverted, as Russia recently did in Ukraine, offering a glimpse of what Vladimir Putin’s “sovereign internet” would look like if fully implemented.

China’s 2019 proposal for a new internet architecture was quashed by consensus at the ITU. However, this decision has not deterred Beijing from pursuing either its development or implementation, both at home and in some friendly countries.


New IP also poses very clear threats to fundamental human rights, as Kate Jones describes in her academic paper co-authored with Emily Taylor and Carolina Caeiro, two internet governance and technical experts. Whereas in the current configuration of its different layers, internet “pipes” are “dumb” and only serve to transmit data, they write, New IP would incorporate new capabilities to monitor content, as well as “capture, transfer and use personal data which would violate states’ obligations in the International Bill of Rights to respect and ensure human rights.”

“At its core, New IP would render the Internet an instrument for government control,” they argue. New IP, Jones tells The G|O, “would seriously undermine individual privacy, freedom of opinion and expression.” As is already the case in Xinjiang, entire populations could be targeted and discriminated against.

The human rights dimension of standards and Big Tech more broadly are, of course, of major significance for International Geneva. “I was quite surprised to discover that in Geneva and in the UN system in general, parallel conversations are happening on similar issues but with very little overlap,” Jones tells me. She is encouraged by the fact that last year the Human Rights Council passed a resolution calling for work on the relationship between technical standard-setting processes and human rights.

With Silicon Valley focusing primarily on money and innovation and only marginally interested in the societal consequences of its technology, we seem to be condemned to play catch-up, meanwhile framing the debates in terms of ethics. “The problem with ethics is that it is malleable,” says Jones. “It is not the same as human rights law, because it is not a set of legal standards. It entails little accountability. Unlike in human rights law, in ethics, you don’t have mechanisms and instruments to make sure that companies or countries are fulfilling their responsibilities.” Jones and her co-authors recommend that the “human rights and diplomatic communities should […] increase their participation in standardization processes.” They also call for the UN to set up a unit on standards and human rights within the Office of the High Commissioner to advise technology SDOs on human rights issues.


It is unlikely that the efforts by countries to have greater control over the internet will abate. There is hardly a government today that doesn’t believe some form of regulation is necessary. In the wake of the Snowden revelations, such calls have also come from the West, with Europe in the lead.

Shoshana Zuboff, Harvard social scientist and author of the seminal book The Age of Surveillance, says that the reality is that we already have two versions of the internet, “a market-led capitalist version based on surveillance that is exploitative” and an “authoritarian version, also based on surveillance.”

“There certainly have been major scandals in the US and the West involving surveillance,” Jones concedes, “but the difference between China or Russia is that in the West, you have the back-up of democratic accountability and legal processes.”

The challenge, Western experts agree, is how to build on the foundations of the existing internet but to ensure that it is rights-respecting and compatible with democracy.

For Jones, the battle against the Chinese or Russian internet model must be fought “for the sake of people in those countries who are severely oppressed, like the Uyghurs in China, but also for all citizens who are afraid of speaking freely. And we should stand firm against countries which use their strong economic might to dominate other countries while riding roughshod over human rights.”

The election of the ITU’s new Secretary-General will be decided by secret ballot.