It’s been an excruciatingly long three weeks for those gathered in Bucharest, Romania for the International Telecommunications Union’s quadrennial come together. At the I.T.U. Plenipotentiary Conference, policymakers, researchers, lobbyists and government representatives come together to thrash out the future direction of travel of the internet and key policy interventions and decisions that they feel ought to be made for the good of the world’s internet-connected population.

The I.T.U. was first convened in 1865 in Paris as the International Telegraph Union, tasked with harmonizing communication standards, and has evolved to regulating almost everything that is connected. These regulations have become momentous for the future of the internet around the world.

Conference attendees aren’t encouraged to rush through the discussion points. Meetings began on September 26, and are scheduled to run until October 14 — including through some weekend days. Extended negotiations mean attendees have little time for sideline conversations or availability to speak to the press.

Still, the three weeks could have seemed an awful lot longer for most had it not been for a crucial decision taken in the first few days of the conference. An election for who would be next secretary-general — and as such be responsible for the general direction the organization takes — was won by the American candidate, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, who handily defeated the Russian candidate, Rashid Ismailov.

Ismailov was a former deputy head of Russia’s telecommunications ministry, and was in part defeated quite so significantly because of external geopolitical circumstances — turns out waging an unjust war against Ukraine is bad for your international reputation. But more than that, Ismailov, representing Russia, threatened to take the future of the internet down a different path to the open, liberalized one that we’ve gotten used to.

“Two things were at stake,” says Maria Farrell, an Irish tech policy expert. “One is the broad direction that the I.T.U. is going to take over the next decade — and there were two very different visions of what that would be. And the second was a sense check of global geopolitics, and what the numbers are between the two power groups.” 

On one side is the U.S. and Europe, and a drive for an open internet. And on the other, China and Russia’s pursuit of a closed-off internet that allows easy centralized control and censorship. 

By choosing to elect Bogdan-Martin, the I.T.U. membership dodged a bullet, and made a decision that many observers believe will help keep the internet fair and free for the next four years. “It marked a big opportunity,” says Mehwish Ansari, head of lobby group Article 19’s global digital team, who is attending the plenipotentiary.

“It’s a new Cold War: U.S.-Europe versus Russia-China, and their competing visions for how networks should function in terms of state control,” said Farrell. “This is one major, headline-grabbing skirmish in a long and very persistent underlying struggle for control of the internet,” she added. 

But it’s far from the last skirmish over what will become of our digital lives — and there are arguments that the secretary-general vote was far from the most important moment in the battle for the future of the internet.

For one thing, countries gave the U.S. candidate their support — but only for now. Farrell pointed out there’s a group of floating countries, including India, Brazil and South Africa, that can be convinced at times to vote with the western axis of international order, but need persuading. “Very often they will vote with Russia or China, depending on the issue they’re interested in,” she said.  

A growing list of countries and their leaders have dabbled in authoritarian crackdowns on free speech, including online. India scores 49 out of a possible 100 on Freedom House’s internet freedom index, Brazil scores 64, and South Africa 73. While none are anywhere near as censorious as Russia (30) or China (10), prior precedent suggests they aren’t exactly beacons of digital freedom.

That’s a concern because there are more significant votes still to come about the rollout of infrastructure underpinning the internet. The tendency of many countries to carry out speech crackdowns could portend future votes that align with the Russian and Chinese closed internet agenda. 

“The I.T.U. is a very important UN agency that impacts our day-to-day lives,” said Sebastian Bellagamba, vice president of external engagement at the Internet Society, who represented the non-profit at the Bucharest conference. Take Network 2030, a set of new internet protocol rules that has been debated by the I.T.U. over the last four years. “It’s a very linked set of ideas being pushed by Huawei, which is effectively an arm of the Chinese state,” said Farrell. China and its representatives want to introduce oversight of every data packet sent through the internet that would allow every IP address to be sourced back to a legally identifiable individual or company. 

It would be a boon for a controlling, centralized state like China to get that granular level of information on its users – and would move the internet away from an ad hoc network of peers to a very centralized, top-down model, said Farrell.

In her acceptance speech, Bogdan-Martin indicated that she wanted the I.T.U. to continue its comparatively hands-off approach to top-down control. That runs counter to Chinese plans. “There are always very well-funded and organized initiatives by China to use the I.T.U. to articulate and export its own incredibly state-centered view of the internet,” said Farrell.

“There’s a lot of work being done at the ITU that is absolutely fundamental for how information and communications technology is designed, developed and deployed, and how telecommunication networks are designed, developed and deployed all around the world,” said Ansari at Article 19.

Concerns over Network 2030, the proposal to change internet protocol rules, which was repackaged in January 2020 by Huawei into a New IP proposal that would replace the existing internet protocol structure by 2030, are widely shared among open internet advocates. It’s a key battle that Bellagamba and the Internet Society believe is likely to dominate conversation at future I.T.U. plenipotentiary meetings. 

Like with the general secretary election, at stake is how much the internet will remain open and free. Under proposals presented by Huawei, the New IP plans would have included “intrinsic security” baked in—a phrase that leaves some outside China and its radius of control chilled. For China, knowing everything about users is “intrinsic security”. For others, it’s a mass invasion of privacy. A now-deleted page on the Huawei website gave justifications for the change to New IP including the need to meet the future of 6G networking, and technical improvements on shipping data around the globe at speed. “New IP does neither define governance models for the use of those technologies, nor lead to “more centralized, top-down control of the internet,” the company wrote, perhaps conscious of what critics were thinking. 

Among those critics is Bellagamba. “New IP, which instead of being a distributed, peer-to-peer protocol, would be a more top-down approach that is more centralized rather than distributed, and more able to be controlled centrally,” he says. In other words, the new standard would take away a data exchange that is spread out across the internet and put in its place a master control controlled by governments. “That’s an important battle to make sure it doesn’t come up again.”

It’s not just the plans for Network 2030 that are a potential flashpoint for future division, and a rallying flag for those looking to uphold freedoms on the internet. “We’re seeing the standardization of technologies in the I.T.U. without scrutiny of the human rights implications and without scrutiny of the user-centric implications of standardizing that technology,” says Ansari. 

Ansari’s warning applies not only to Chinese or Russian-backed plans: the firmament of big tech companies, overwhelmingly based in the U.S., have long been involved in gathering vast amounts of user data, triangulating it and packaging it up to sell on to companies for profit without much oversight. “The internet is not open at all, and that’s the reason for our presence here,” says Bellagamba. “In order for the internet to work, many actors need to be okay with the future of the internet — including the I.T.U., but it’s not the only one.”

The backdrop to each of these clashes is a broader battle over the future direction of life online. China has spent billions over decades developing its Great Firewall, which has largely stood firm despite the hope that the internet would foster democracy and political pluralism within the country. Russia is rapidly rolling out its own RuNet, a centralized, Balkanized version of the global internet over which the state can exert control, a closure that Russia has been accelerating dramatically since its re-invasion of Ukraine in February. 

Chinese and Russian versions of their internet are anathema to the open, decentralized internet that western countries profess to hold dear. The survival of entire political systems is tied to how the internet is allowed to be governed. And the tooth-and-nail fight for which approach will prevail will be won and lost at the I.T.U. 

In the breach is the future of the internet for the next billion internet users. “Why does this stuff matter?” asked Farrell. “It’s the fundamental question.” For people like herself who live in countries like the U.K., “Our lives are not going to be changed very much by this, or anything the I.T.U. does. But the people it does count for is the whole of the rest of the world — not Europe, not North America.”

Control over internet access during elections has become a flashpoint for nervous African governments fearful of voter opposition to their rule. How the internet can be regulated inside countries — open and accessible, or closed and constrained — depends on the decisions made at the I.T.U., a global standards setting body and part of the UN. Photo: YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images

Farrell asked me to imagine for a moment I’m the communications minister in a small-to-medium-sized African country. “Let’s say you’re Uganda,” she says. “You’ve just come to power; the president has told you the internet is a key driver of growth and middle-class jobs.” 

“And above all, we need to make sure we’re not just being a serf country for big U.S. firms that are extractive data firms,” she says. “It’s a neo-colonialist model. You’re looking at your telecoms companies within the country — likely one large incumbent, which was probably founded by a European telco in the first place, and a couple of smaller national incumbents. They come to you saying that a network upgrade is an expensive thing, and you need to bankroll its development.”

“At the same time, you’re looking at what’s going on in Syria or Tunisia, at the Arab Spring and you know you can be out of power very quickly. The internet is out of control,” she says. “It’s expensive and dangerous — and yet you have to have it.” 

But there’s a solution.

A Chinese business executive or politician comes calling, offering you a complete package that will solve all your problems. “They’ll give you everything from cheap loans to buy the equipment you need,” said Farrell. “They’ll train your engineers for you. They’ll ship their builders in for you. They’ll literally write the laws for you to keep a lid [on the internet.] They’ll take your civil servants and bring them back to China and train them in censorship. They’ll solve all your problems for you.”

Continued Farrell: “We have built an internet in such a way that it’s extractive and it’s expensive. It creates at least as many problems as it fixes. And right now, we’re not particularly open to thinking of that as a problem and how we can solve it for most of the people in the world.”

“This is just one iteration of a larger struggle,” she said.