Russia’s campaign to control the Internet isn’t just a secret intelligence gambit any longer. It’s an explicit goal, proclaimed by Russian President Vladimir Putin as a key element of the Kremlin’s foreign policy.
Asking for “international dialogue” takes some nerve, coming from the world’s biggest cyberbully — a country that notoriously meddled in the 2016, 2018 and 2020 U.S. elections, and has engaged in similar Internet mischief throughout the world. Controlling the “information space,” as the Russians sometimes call it, has long been an intelligence priority for Moscow.
Russia is waging its cyberdiplomacy offensive on two fronts: First, the United Nations has embraced Russia’s proposal to write a new treaty governing cybercrime, to replace the 2001 Budapest convention that Moscow rejected because it was too intrusive. And second, Russia is lobbying for its candidate to head the U.N.’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and use it to supplant the current private group, known as ICANN, that coordinates Internet addresses.
These international regulatory battles sound obscure, but they will help determine who writes the rules for Internet communications for the rest of the 21st century. The fundamental question is whether the governance process will benefit authoritarian states that want to control information or the advocates of openness and freedom.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed on Tuesday the importance of this contest. “There are relatively few items that are ultimately going to have a greater impact on the lives of people around the world than the ITU post. It may seem dry and esoteric, but it’s anything but. And so we’re very, very actively engaged on this front,” Blinken said in an email message, elaborating on comments he made to me during an April 7 interview.
Russia outlined its ITU game plan in unusually forthright comments by Ernst Chernukhin, the foreign ministry’s special coordinator for political use of information and communications technology. He spoke on April 21, the same day Putin made his speech.
“The optimal option . . . would be transferring Internet management prerogatives specifically to the ITU, as it is a specialized U.N. body, which has the needed expertise on these issues,” Chernukhin said. “This strategic objective may be achieved by electing or promoting the Russian candidate to the position of the ITU Secretary-General in the 2022 elections . . . and by holding the 2025 anniversary U.N. Internet Governance Forum in Russia.”
Russia’s candidate for ITU secretary-general is Rashid Ismailov, a former deputy chief of the Russian communications ministry and a former executive at the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei. In announcing Ismailov’s candidacy on April 7, Maxim Parshin, the current deputy minister, underlined Moscow’s governance takeover plan: “We believe it is important to define an entity, within the U.N. framework, that would develop and implement legal norms and standards in the field of Internet governance. We think that the ITU could become such an entity.”
The Biden administration’s candidate for the ITU post is Doreen Bogdan-Martin, an American telecommunications expert who’s currently director of the ITU’s development bureau. The State Department, which has sometimes been lackadaisical in such international regulatory contests, is campaigning aggressively for Bogdan-Martin, and officials hope she’ll have sufficient support in Africa, Europe, Latin America and elsewhere to win the post. The election will take place at an ITU gathering late next year in Romania.
Internet technical governance today is managed by ICANN, which stands for Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. This gathering of engineers and other experts was founded in 1998 to supervise domain names for the Defense Department’s ARPANET system, and it operated under a contract with the Commerce Department until 2016, when it went fully private.
The American roots of the Internet seem to both upset Putin and fuel conspiratorial talk. The Russian leader said during a 2014 interview translated by RT that the Internet “first appeared as a special CIA project . . . and the special services are still at the center of things.” Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s former president, complained in a February interview: “The Internet emerged at a certain time, and undoubtedly the key rights to control are in the United States.”
Russia is ready to rumble over the rules that will shape the future of Internet communications. Fortunately, the Biden administration seems determined to fight back hard to maintain fair and open rules.