The fraying fabric of the internet

Arthur Piper, IBA Technology CorrespondentWednesday 16 November 2022

The election of a new Secretary-General to the influential International Telecommunications Union has highlighted the disagreement globally around how the internet functions. Global Insight assesses what’s at stake.

From 1 January 2023, one of the most important global technology agencies will have a new leader, as former US Commerce Department telecoms expert Doreen Bogdan-Martin takes the reins at the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). The ITU – which sits under the auspices of the United Nations – is responsible for governing much of the technology that runs the internet and mobile phones. As such, its work has implications for about 6.5 billion mobile phone users and the 5.6 billion people with internet access.

In September, Bogdan-Martin went head-to-head for the position of ITU Secretary-General against Rashid Ismailov, a former deputy minister for Russia’s telecommunications ministry and a colleague of Bogdan-Martin at the ITU. Given that the victor sets the agenda and approach of the ITU, the outcome has wide-reaching ramifications for the content people see online and how the fabric of the internet works over the Secretary-General’s four years in post.

Open versus human

Bogdan-Martin campaigned on improving accessibility to the internet for the estimated 3.7 billion people without it. But perhaps more importantly, she supported the private–public partnerships that have given organisations such as Meta and Twitter such unprecedented power over the content people can access online. In fact, Bogdan-Martin reflects the ITU’s existing approach of an internet overseen by a plurality of interests, given that the agency is comprised not only of 190 member states but also about 900 private bodies, researchers and non-governmental organisations. Unsurprisingly, her candidacy was supported and celebrated by no less a person than US President Joe Biden, whose ‘Declaration for the Future of the Internet’ underlines such a multi-stakeholder model.

Ismailov, on the other hand, argued for the ‘humanisation’ of the internet. His five-point plan would have switched the emphasis from the free market, free-for-all development that has characterised much of the internet’s growth towards stronger regulation and international standardisation over a wider range of technologies. For example, Ismailov argued that the ITU should aim to ‘establish unified international rules for the operation of drones, autonomous physical and virtual systems with artificial intelligence elements both on the level of technical regulations and ethical codes’. In short, Ismailov would have pushed for less self-regulation and more state intervention across the board.

Given that Russia is embroiled in conflict in Ukraine, it’s perhaps not too surprising that Bogdan-Martin succeeded in securing the role. Her victory is being seen as both a continuation of the long-running libertarian ideology that underpinned the early years of the internet and as a potential block to its increasing fragmentation. For example, Joe Kane, Director of Broadband and Spectrum Policy at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, wrote that ‘[her] election by ITU member states shows the international interest in ensuring the technology and the policies that surround it empower individuals rather than become a tool of control for authoritarian regimes’.

While it’s undoubtedly true that the internet does empower individuals, it also cedes huge power to a few online businesses that democracies have largely failed to hold to account

While it’s undoubtedly true that the internet does empower individuals, it also cedes huge power to a few online businesses that democracies have largely failed to hold to account. The tension between self-regulation and stricter controls over the potential commercial, emotional and political manipulation of the public by online technologies remains unsettled.

Global Insight has reported previously, for instance, on the persistently weak attempts by governments in the UK and elsewhere to put forward – never mind pass – meaningful legislation that could protect users from potential harm (‘The fight against harmful content’ , IBA Global Insight August-September 2022). If the timbre rather than the letter of future regulation is set by the tone that bodies such as the ITU adopt, expect little pressure for such reform from Bogdan-Martin.

Fighting against fragmentation

Preventing the fragmentation of the internet is a much bigger problem. The internet is already fragmented to some degree. Not only do large US technology companies run restricted forms of their services in countries such as China for fear of being excluded from potentially lucrative markets, but China itself operates strict controls over the content under its own jurisdictions – not least through the ‘Great Firewall’, which acts as a nationwide content moderator.

Ismailov’s candidacy represented both a defence and widening of this approach, which echoes the assertion of a growing geopolitical rift between authoritarian regimes and democracies. For example, a joint statement by Russia and China in February specifically mentioned the ITU and urged nation states to respect the right of sovereign nations to create and regulate their domestic internets as they see fit and without interference.

Some commentators have been critical of attempts by the Chinese authorities to use the ITU to propose far-ranging changes to the structure of the internet

Bogdan-Martin’s election could prevent such fragmentation accelerating in the near future if the Secretary-General elect takes a tougher stance on moves aimed at overhauling the way the internet works. Some commentators have been critical, for example, of attempts by the Chinese authorities to use the ITU to propose far-ranging changes to the structure of the internet. Such proposals include replacing the network’s current TCP/IP address infrastructure with a new internet protocol. The new protocol, if adopted, would enable micro surveillance across the entire network complete with personal identifiers and an ability to block content from a centralised control point.

More importantly, users could be forced to register to use their local internet, which would potentially have its own controls. ‘Rather than a unified world wide web, citizens could be forced to connect to a patchwork of national internets, each with its own rules — a concept known in China as cyber sovereignty’, reported the Financial Times back in 2019 when the proposals were first aired. Currently, the new internet protocol is on the ITU’s agenda but, as yet, no standardisation has been agreed. While the adoption of any new internet protocol system would be voluntary, it could serve to create parallel internets at some stage in the future.

So far, few ITU members have been sympathetic to Ismailov’s vision of a humanised internet, given the perception that it’s linked to authoritarian backers. Yet the weakness of the multi-stakeholder model is its failure to address some of the well-documented harms and inequalities associated with an internet dominated by large technology businesses. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation has been one success in combatting these, but more could be needed to stem the momentum of the alternative, more conservative plethora of internets promoted by China. If Bogdan-Martin aims to get the 3.7 million unconnected people online by 2030, she also needs to work hard to preserve the dream of one single network.

Arthur Piper is a freelance journalist. He can be contacted at

Image credit: HJBC/