ITU elects US candidate, quelling concerns about internet fracture

Doreen Bogdan-Martin of the US today defeated Russia’s Rashid Ismailov by a convincing 139 to 25 in a vote to decide who will become the next secretary general of the International Telecommunications Union, allaying Western concerns about nation-state control and interoperability of the internet 

Bogdan-Martin, who will become the first woman to head the ITU in its 157-year history, is seen by some observers as the candidate most likely to preserve the ITU’s status as a neutral arbiter of a free and open internet, in opposition to recent Russian and Chinese maneuvering in the group that would have placed much more control over the internet’s basic functionality in the hands of nation-states.

Former US FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said before the election that it was essentially a referendum on which direction the member states want for the internet—whether the group should continue to manage the internet in its own best interests or accept the kind of state control that other stakeholders have pushed for in the past.

“It’s a trial vote,” Wheeler said. “You might call it a policy plebiscite. The Russians and Chinese have signed an agreement to try and turn the ITU into more of a regulator of the internet and have an internet that more closely resembles the kind of control they have domestically.”

Russian-Chinese IPv6+ plan stirs concern about internet interoperability

That agreement, which the two governments had billed as “ensuring that all [s]tates have equal rights to participate in global network governance,” includes a fundamental redesign of the internet, initially called “New IP” and since rebranded to “IPv6+.” According to a 2020 report by ICANN, the proposal—which has been largely spearheaded by Huawei—introduces a number of features that ICANN called technologically retrograde and potentially damaging to the stability and interoperability of the internet.

The group also argued that the partial nature of Huawei’s descriptions of its new standard makes it difficult to evaluate.

“There are no publicly available, definitive, and complete descriptions of what New IP is,” according to ICANN’s report. “As such, it can only be seen at best as ‘work in progress’ and cannot be fully analyzed and compared to a standard such as the TCP/IP protocol suite.”

Some of New IP’s key features—including a return to circuit-switched networks, instead of the packet-switched standards used today, and the architectural concept of “ManyNets”—would fundamentally alter the basic nature of the internet, forcing major changes for enterprise and consumer end-users alike.

“Instead of a single network, the Internet would become a patchwork of networks loosely interconnected via gateways,” ICANN’s report said.

New IP would also enable end-user applications to “program” intermediate network elements for increased flexibility in a technique called “active networking.” That’s not a new idea, according to ICANN, but the implementation in New IP raises a number of troubling questions from a security perspective.

“In a traditional client-server model, potential damages due to bad code are limited to the end-points,” the report said. “In an active network, the potential for collateral damage is much higher.”

Security advocates fear government control of internet

This new architecture has also been roundly criticized by security and privacy advocates as a “top-down” structure that fundamentally changes the multistakeholder model traditionally used to govern the internet, enabling much more control by large central governments than before.

The Internet Society, though it declined to endorse one candidate or another for the ITU secretary general elections, expressed concern before the vote that international political considerations could “fragment the internet.”

“Geopolitical actions could … lead us further to a Splinternet, where the internet is carved up along political, economic [and] technological boundaries,” the group said via email. “It is an inherent contradiction of the original principles of the internet, which was intended to be borderless and globally connected.”

The society also warned that state control over the bedrock functions of the internet were antithetical to that global vision, and that internet governance should continue to be under the control of apolitical governance mechanisms.

The ITU’s outgoing secretary general, China’s Houlin Zhao, has pushed for more state control over internet governance during his tenure, and downplayed US concerns over security threats posed by the use of Chinese networking equipment in mission-critical networks in the west, according to a recent report from the Heritage Foundation. President Joe Biden, in what Poltico described as an “unusually” clear statement of intent, stated publicly, earlier this week, that he supported Bogdan-Martin for the post.

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