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What’s the ITU and why is it important?

Imogen Foulkes

It’s been dubbed the most important United Nation’s agency, but I have to confess, in all my years in Geneva the ITU, International Telecommunication Union, is one of the agencies I have, well, maybe not paid as much attention to as I should have.

All that changed recently, when, leafing through the UN’s calendar for the second half of 2022, I noticed that the ITU would be holding its once every four years “plenipotentiary”. Now there’s a word to conjure with: plenipotentiary? I was intrigued.

As it turns out, it’s a grandiose name for an event similar to the World Health Assembly, or the UN General Assembly, when UN member states get together to elect governing boards or adopt new policies.

But there are differences. For a start the ITU is the oldest UN agency, in fact it is far older than the United Nations itself. Founded in 1865, its original role was to standardise a fledgling telegraph system. Many countries were developing what was then cutting-edge communications technology, but they were following technical different paths, and not…communicating with one another about their respective developments.


Cross border challenges

This caused, as the ITU’s deputy secretary general Malcolm Johnson told me “challenges, in the cross border operation of the telegraph service in Europe”. “In fact”, he adds, “operators had to write out the telegraph on one side of the border, and walk across to the operator on the other side of the border who would then start tapping out the message.”

That kind of incompatible technological development risked defeating the whole purpose of the emerging communications industry, and so the ITU was created, tasked with getting countries together to agree unified standards for the telegraph service, telephony, and IT developments ever since. Today Johnson credits the ITU’s existence with the telecommunications breakthroughs which changed our way of life.

“Telephony, radio and television broadcasting, satellite communications, the internet, they wouldn’t have developed.”

Malcolm Johnson joins me on the latest edition of Inside Geneva, together with long time telecommunications specialist Fiona Alexander, and the UK’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Simon Manley, to take an in-depth look at the ITU, its role in the 21st century, and that upcoming plenipotentiary.

Alexander, who now works for the Washington based Centre for European Policy Analysis, suggests that while many of us may not have heard of the ITU, it would be a mistake to underestimate it. “If you’re a beneficiary of any modern-day communications network, you have benefitted from something that the ITU has done.”

Diverse membership…and a cold war clash?

An organisation with such a wide yet highly technical mandate, does Ambassador Manley tells us, need specialists as well as UN diplomats. That’s why the ITU has a very different membership from other UN agencies: together with the UN’s 193 member states, the ITU has almost 900 representatives from the IT industry, and from academia.

And so back to that upcoming plenipotentiary. Taking place later this month in Bucharest, the gathering will elect a new secretary general, as well as a 48-member governing council. And here’s why some people are paying a little more attention to the ITU right now than they may have done in the past: the competition for secretary general is between seasoned ITU official Doreen Bogdan-Martin from the United States, and IT specialist Rashid Ismailov – who also until recently happened to be Russia’s vice-minister for telecommunications.

Following its unprovoked attack on Ukraine, Moscow has become increasingly isolated within the UN; it was ousted from the UN Human Rights Council earlier this year, and has been censured by the General Assembly. Now there is, on the surface at least, little appetite among UN members to allow Russia to assume the head of a major UN agency.

“I think we’ve been clear right across the UN system that this is not the moment to see Russians elected to top positions when Putin’s regime is flouting international law and flouting the {UN} charter,” says Manley.

Future of the internet

But, perhaps like me because they haven’t paid a huge amount of attention to the ITU until now, some journalists are pitching the Washington versus Moscow election as a fight for the future of the internet. Doom-laden articles suggesting “a battle for authoritarian control of the internet,” and “if Russia wins the vote, the internet as we know it will be no more,” have been doing the rounds.

Is this possible? “No,” sighs Johnson, “that’s a misconception. There’s no question of any single entity exerting control over the Internet.” Johnson points to the ITU’s tradition of governing by consensus. As well as the secretary general, there are four other members of the ITU’s coordinating committee; they too are elected for four-year terms. The committee takes all major decisions, and can only reach agreement, Johnson says, “by unanimity”.

Nevertheless, there have been some ideological tussles at the ITU, and they’re unlikely to go away. The current secretary general, Houlin Zhao, is from China. He has served two four-year terms, and on his watch a proposal was discussed at the ITU to include internet governance in the agency’s remit. This, as, Alexander, points out, was rejected.

Alexander suspects similar proposals could emerge in the future, but she rules out some of the more sensational predictions of authoritarian control of the internet, its users, and its content. “Every member state has a different perspective of what is appropriate online…the idea that the ITU is going to take over anything I think is not correct.”

Digital divide

Ambassador Manley also suggests this election is “not about the United States versus Russia”. For him, the real challenge for the ITU is to fulfil its promise to bridge the digital divide. Because, while for so many of us using the internet is as routine as the morning cup of coffee, 40% of the world’s population still have no access to it, and the vast majority of them live in the developing world.

Covid-19, and all our efforts to work from home, were a stark reminder of just how disadvantaged we can be without the internet; it can be the difference between a job and unemployment, or between an education, and no access to school at all.

For Johnson, tackling that unequal access must be the top priority for the ITU over the next four years. He sees technical development as more important to the UN’s sustainable development goals than ever before, and, he adds “all the new technologies; 5G, 6G, they have tremendous promise for humanity but they have to be distributed fairly”.

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