WASHINGTON — The United States and Russia are vying for control of a United Nations organization that sets standards for new technologies, part of a global battle between democracies and authoritarian nations over the course of the Internet.
US officials are pressuring more than 190 member countries of the International Telecommunications Union, a UN agency that develops technical standards for technology such as cell phone networks and streaming video, to vote Thursday for Doreen Bogdan-Martin, a long-time American employee, to lead the organization. She is running against Rashid Ismailov, a former Russian government official.
The American campaign has been especially intense. President Biden backed up Ms. Bogdan-Martin last week, capping months of public and private lobbying on her behalf by top administration figures and major US corporate groups.
Whoever heads the ITU will have the power to influence the rules by which new technologies are developed around the world. While the organization is not well known, it has established key guidelines in recent years for how streaming video works and coordinates the global use of radio frequencies that power cell phone networks.
The election has become a symbol of the growing global struggle between a democratic approach to the internet, which is loosely regulated and interconnected around the world, and authoritarian countries that want to control their citizens’ access to the web. Russia has built a system that allows it to do just that, monitoring what Russians are saying online about topics like the invasion of Ukraine, while the United States largely fails to regulate content on social networks like Facebook and Twitter.
Some worry that Russia and China, which have also shut down their Internet, could use the ITU to reshape the web in their own image. Both countries publish a joint statement last year he asked to preserve “the sovereign right of states to regulate the national segment of the Internet.” They said they were emphasizing “the need to enhance the role of the International Telecommunications Union and strengthen the representation of the two countries in their governing bodies.”
Erica Barks-Ruggles, a State Department official and former ambassador to Rwanda who is representing the United States at an ITU conference this week, said the organization would help determine whether people around the world could have affordable access to new technologies. and communicate across borders. and “whether or not their governments can disconnect them from the Internet.”
“That’s why we’re putting time, money and energy into this,” he said.
The ITU was founded in 1865 to deal with problems related to telegraph machines. It has traditionally focused on physical networks rather than the internet, but has been involved in setting standards for everything from smart home devices to connected cars. The agency’s plenipotentiary conference, which takes place every four years, began Monday in Bucharest, Romania.
Last week, Biden said that Bogdan-Martin “possesses the integrity, experience and vision necessary to transform the digital landscape.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and other top administration officials have also endorsed his candidacy.
At a recent conference in Kigali, Rwanda, the United States hosted a reception at the city’s conference center where attendees heard a speech by Ms. Bogdan-Martin, watched a video endorsement by Vice President Kamala Harris, and listened to music by a local band.
In response to emailed questions, Ms. Bogdan-Martin said that she hoped her leadership at ITU could expand global Internet access and improve transparency in the organization. She said that she hoped to lead in “bringing an open, secure, reliable and interoperable Internet to all people around the world.”
Moscow is propping up Ismailov, the Russian government’s former deputy minister of telecommunications and mass communications and a former executive at Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications company that U.S. officials worry could leak data on its products to Beijing.
The Russian embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
The proxy battle of the election may be the first of many more.
“I see the US really engaging in a new kind of foreign policy attack, where they see our adversaries and our competitors wanting to change the rules of the game to shut down access,” said Karen Kornbluh, a senior fellow at German Marshall. Background.