(Bloomberg) -- An upcoming vote for leadership of a little-known United Nations agency that develops global standards for mobile phones, internet connectivity and satellite technology could impact the future of the internet.

That’s because the choice for the next secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union boils down to candidates from the US and Russia, two nations with starkly different visions of the internet. The vote is being held Thursday by secret ballot in Bucharest, Romania.

The agency has taken on a more high-profile role during nearly eight years of Chinese leadership, amid the rising specter of a “splinternet” –- a global division between a free-flowing internet in the West and a more restricted one in authoritarian nations. 

Nonprofit groups based in the US now determine much of how the internet runs. US experts fear that authoritarian governments such as China and Russia could use the ITU as a method to push for more government control over the internet, a scenario that some fear would be more likely if Russia takes control of the body. Rising state control and censorship of the internet could hasten the splinternet’s arrival, and Russian leadership at the ITU might more immediately favor Russian and Chinese companies, US experts said.

“If the American candidate wins, that’s good news for a global and open internet,” said Justin Sherman, a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Cyber Statecraft Initiative. 

“But if the Russian candidate wins, that means Russia had enough votes to overcome the open-internet bloc--and it means Moscow will begin pushing through, with Beijing’s help, a bunch of ITU proposals that try to increase state control of the internet around the world,” he said. 

Moscow and Beijing have long wanted to change the global internet governance structure to give the ITU--and its member governments, rather than bodies comprising industry and citizen-activists--a greater role over the internet, Sherman said.

The Biden administration has recently ramped up efforts to secure a US victory, with President Joe Biden issuing a statement last week in support of the US candidate, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, a qualified amateur radio operator who’s worked with the ITU for 28 years. The US campaign is stressing her individual expertise rather than focusing on the geopolitical showdown between Washington and Moscow that has been heightened by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Bogdan-Martin also wants the ITU to focus on engaging businesses, civil society, academia and experts in its discussions on radiofrequency spectrum, standards development in equipment and network technologies and advancing broadband infrastructure.

Russia’s candidate, Rashid Ismailov, a telecommunications veteran at Ericsson Inc. and Nokia who was also the first non-Chinese vice president at Huawei Technologies Co Ltd. and a deputy minister in Russia, has urged a stronger role for the ITU on topics ranging from taxes and regulation to artificial intelligence. He argues the body should establish “unified international rules regulating the use of drones” regarding both technical regulations and ethical codes.

Both candidates emphasized the need to connect the remaining 2.7 billion people globally, most in the developing world, who aren’t online. The voting intentions of some countries of the Global South, including India and some African countries, “are very much up in the air,” according to Sherman. In April, developing countries such as India, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan and South Africa failed to sign on to a non-binding US declaration in favor of a free and open internet, despite reports of Russia’s internet crackdown as part of its war in Ukraine

The candidates are vying to succeed China’s Houlin Zhao, who won the leadership unopposed in both 2014 and 2018.

Under Houlin’s leadership, China increased its influence over ITU study groups that make standards recommendations, in addition to increasing the number of Chinese staff at the UN agency, according to a March report from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative US think tank. The ITU became a “critical component of China’s effort to dominate standard setting” in order to favor Chinese companies, especially Huawei, according to the report.

Two US-based groups essentially dominate how the internet is run at the moment, rather than the ITU. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a non-profit organization, allocates domain names and IP addresses with the aim of securing a “borderless” internet for all. The Internet Engineering Task Force, whose membership is open to all individuals, develops open standards by “rough consensus” and specifies internet protocols that underpin email and routing among others.

 

(Updated to include context on possible ITU positions in the future in ninth paragraph. A previous version incorrectly spelled Houlin Zhao’s name.)

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