US candidate Doreen Bogdan-Martin to take the helm at ITU

ITU director-general candidate, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, at the last meeting of the ITU 2022 Council session was held on Saturday in Bucharest, ahead of the plenipotentary, which started on 26 September. (Credit: ITU/D.Woldu)

American candidate Doreen Bogdan-Martin was elected on Thursday as the next director general of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), amid growing competition among global powers to shape the future of internet governance. 

Bogdan-Martin, the current director of the Telecommunications Development Office at ITU, was elected by member states in a secret ballot held at the agency’s Plenipotentiary Conference in Bucharest, Romania, beating Russian candidate Rashid Ismailov.

She will take the helm on 1 January 2023, succeeding the organisation’s current boss, the Chinese Houlin Zhao, and becoming the first female chief of the ITU.

“The world is facing significant challenges – escalating conflicts, a climate crisis, food security, gender inequalities, and 2.7 billion people with no access to the Internet,” Bogdan-Martin, said after the vote.

“I believe we, the ITU and our members, have an opportunity to make a transformational contribution. Continuous innovation can and will be a key enabler to facilitate resolution of many of these issues.”

Tomas Lamanauskas of Lithuania was elected as deputy secretary general.

Power play. The race to secure the seat at the obscure UN technical body was more than an ordinary election. It comes against a backdrop of growing concern about the future of internet governance, with many experts worried about attempts by many governments to impose controls and restrict citizens’ access to the Internet.

Bogdan-Martin’s election also follows a long and vigorous campaign by the United States to secure the post and gain more sway in a UN system where China has been gaining ground, with recent election wins at agencies including at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Two very different candidates. Ismailov, former deputy minister of Russian telecommunications and currently president of Russian telecoms company Beeline, and Bogdan-Martin, represent opposite views on internet governance, as the media Le Temps points out – authoritarian on the one hand and democratic on the other.

Russia has advocated the idea of increasing sovereign control over the internet – a view also supported by China – and shifting more of the decision-making over how people communicate over the internet to the ITU.

Bogdan-Martin, on her side, has been advocating for a more participative, open internet governance approach, and “universal connectivity to ensure that everyone in the world is digitally empowered”.

Why the ITU matters. The 157-year-old agency, its tower looming over the Place des Nations in Geneva, plays an important role in setting the guidelines for how new cutting-edge technologies are developed, managing the world’s increasingly crowded airwaves, and getting countries to agree on unified standards for the Internet.

It also has a different membership structure compared with other agencies, and counts almost 900 representatives from the IT industry and academia alongside  member states.

As Kristen Cordell at the Center for Strategic and International Studies points out: “The future state of the ITU matters immensely for the future of the internet.”

“The legal and regulatory processes encapsulated within the organisation have a profound impact on the type of internet systems, national regulations, and accountability that result,” she said, adding that the development department that Bogdan-Martin led “plays a particularly vital role in supporting multilateral cooperation for fair and open internet governance”.