ITU elections

Rashid Ismailov, the Russian candidate for Secretary-General of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), introduced himself to the Geneva UN press corps yesterday (Wednesday 23). Invited to speak by the UN Correspondents Press Association (ACANU), Ismailov, a former deputy minister at the Russian Ministry of Telecommunications, spoke by Zoom, unable to travel.

“My bank account is frozen, and so are my credit cards,” he told us. Hoping that the situation will have changed by September when the election is due to take place, he admitted, however, that campaigning would be “problematic.” Echoing Moscow’s position that the war was a “special military operation” and that, as a Russian, he supported his country, “right or wrong,” Rashid Ismailov said ITU had violated “its Convention and Constitution” when it decided to ban Russian applications to its working groups.

The September election of the new ITU Secretary-General is widely considered one of the most important events on International Geneva’s agenda and has been the object of sustained diplomatic efforts. The other candidate for the position is American Doreen Bogdan-Martin, currently Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau.

At stake? Arguably the future of the internet as we know it, and beyond that, the future of cyberspace itself. The ITU, a standardization organization (SDO), has become a major battlefield in the future of the internet, as China and Russia are actively trying to replace the current multi-stakeholder governance model with a state-centered model. Russia has repeatedly attempted to change ITU’s mandate to include internet governance, an effort supported by Beijing. In 2019, Russia adopted a series of measures to allow for the development of what has been referred as Russia’s “sovereign internet law,” which could de facto allow Russia to disconnect itself from the internet, allowing it to control access to cyberspace within its borders. In a similar effort, China is actively pushing for a “new IP” at the ITU. Both efforts are opposed by Western countries and by civil society.

In response to a G|O question, the Russian candidate refused to admit that his country’s “sovereign internet law” was in complete contradiction with the concept of an open internet. “Look what is happening now and who is cutting whom?” he said. “With the sanctions and restrictions now applied by the West on Russia’s internet, many countries will now start to think about their sovereignty, their control, and say that the gates shouldn’t be open all the way.”

He conveniently failed to mention that it was, in fact, Moscow that shut down Instagram and Facebook in Russia, and that Putin’s regime has used strong intimidation tactics on foreign internet companies operating in the country.