Doreen Bogdan-Martin of the US today defeated Russia’s Rashid Ismailov by a landslide 139 to 25 in a vote to decide who will become the next secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union, allaying Western concerns about nation-state control and Internet interoperability
Bogdan-Martinwho will become the first woman to head the ITU in its 157-year history, is seen by some observers as the most likely candidate to maintain the ITU’s status as a neutral arbiter of a free and open Internet, in defiance of recent Russian and Chinese maneuvering in the group that would put much more control over the basic functionality of the Internet in the hands of nation states.
Former US FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said before the election that it was essentially a referendum on what direction member states wanted the Internet to take — whether the group should continue to run the Internet in its own interest or accept the kind of government control that other stakeholders have insisted in the past.
“It’s a tentative vote,” Wheeler said. “You might call it a political plebiscite. The Russians and the Chinese signed an agreement to try to make the ITU more of an Internet regulator and have an Internet that is more like the kind of control they have domestically.”
Russia-China IPv6+ plan raises concerns about Internet interoperability
This agreement, which the two governments had billed as “guaranteeing that all [s]countries have equal rights to participate in the governance of the global network,” involves a fundamental redesign of the Internet, originally called “New IP” and then renamed “IPv6+.” According to a 2020 ICANN report, the proposal, largely led by Huawei, introduced a number of features that ICANN called technologically retrograde and potentially harmful to the stability and interoperability of the Internet.
The group also claimed that the partial nature of Huawei’s descriptions of the new standard made it difficult to assess.
“There are no publicly available, definitive and complete descriptions of what constitutes New IP,” according to the ICANN report. “As such, it can at best be regarded as a ‘work in progress’ and cannot be fully analyzed and compared to a standard such as TCP/IP protocol suite.
Some of the key features of New IP—including a return to circuit-switched networks instead of the packet-switched standards used today and the architectural concept of “ManyNets”—would fundamentally change the underlying nature of the Internet, forcing major changes for enterprise and consumer end users.
“Rather than a single network, the Internet will become a patchwork of networks loosely connected to each other through gateways,” the ICANN report said.
The new IP will also allow end-user applications to “program” intermediate network elements for increased flexibility in a technique called “active networking.” This is not a new idea, according to ICANN, but the implementation in New IP raises a number of troubling questions from a security perspective.
“In the traditional client-server model, the potential damage due to bad code is limited to endpoints,” the report said. “In an active network, the potential for collateral damage is much higher.”
Security advocates fear government control of the Internet
This new architecture has also been heavily criticized by security and privacy advocates as a top-down structure that fundamentally changes the multi-stakeholder model traditionally used to govern the Internet, allowing far more control from large central governments than before.
The Internet Society, while refusing to endorse either candidate for the general election for ITU Secretary, expressed concern before the vote that international political considerations could “fragment the Internet”.
“Geopolitical action could … take us further into the Splinternet, where the Internet is divided into political, economic [and] technological limits,” the group said via email. “This is an inherent contradiction of the original principles of the Internet, which was designed to be borderless and globally connected.”
The Society also warned that government control of the Internet’s core functions is antithetical to this global vision, and that Internet governance should continue to be under the control of apolitical governance mechanisms.
Outgoing ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao of China has pushed for greater state control over Internet governance during his tenure and downplayed US concerns about security threats posed by the use of Chinese networking equipment on critical networks in the West. according to a recent Heritage Foundation report. President Joe Biden, in what Politico described as an “unusually” clear statement of intent made public earlier this week, that he supported Bogdan-Martin for the post.
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