U.S. Candidate Doreen Bogdan-Martin Wins Election for ITU Secretary General

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By Michela Menting | 4Q 2022 | IN-6691

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Member States elect U.S.-backed candidate Doreen Bogdan-Martin as their next Secretary General, the first woman to hold this position. The impact of the appointment will alleviate concerns of a “splinternet” as promoted by China and Russia, and instead makes the delivery of universal digital connectivity a much more realistic outcome.

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ITU Member States Elect First Woman as Their New Secretary General


The International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) Plenipotentiary Conference (PP) meets every 4 years to elect senior management, as well set the policies and plans for the ITU. Two candidates have been campaigning for the post of Secretary General (SG) for the past year, American Doreen Bogdan-Martin and Russian Rashid Ismailov. On September 29, 2022, at the ITUPP in Bucharest, Bogdan-Martin won the vote at by a landslide, 139 to Ismailov’s 25. Bogdan-Martin will be the first woman SG of the ITU, and only the second U.S. candidate to become SG in the history of the Union.

A Battle for the Internet


The ITU is a United Nations (UN) specialized agency focused on developing Information and Communications Technology (ICT) standards and policies to facilitate international connectivity in communication networks, whether those are telephony, Internet Protocol (IP), cellular, or satellite. The campaign for the new SG pitted U.S. interests against Russian ones in an intense race that increasingly reflected a growing disparity between both countries’ stances on Internet governance.

Russia has aligned itself closely with China’s vision, supported by the outgoing SG, Houlin Zhao, on enabling more pervasive Internet control, and a splintering of the global framework, to allow “the sovereign right of States to regulate the national segment of the internet.” This caused a bit of panic among the United States and its Western allies and certainly raised the profile of the ITU as a potentially problematic conduit for policies that go against the grain of free and open ICTs.

China has been especially active within the ITU during Zhao’s two (4-year) mandates in advancing this “splinternet” vision, not least through the standardization arm of the Union (the ITU-T). Huawei, supported by China and other Chinese companies, has submitted a raft of new proposals under the “New IP” banner. The goal of New IP is to address modern communication system requirements, because most protocols used today for the Internet and telecoms networks were designed 40 years ago, including Transmission Control Protocol (TCP)/IP. New IP proposes a backward-compatible solution that addresses these concerns, but could potentially be used as a platform for centralized control by carriers. While the proposals ultimately did not gain any traction within the ITU, even under Zhao, there is little doubt it would have seen renewed support under a Russian SG. Certainly, China has not abandoned the effort, now renamed IPv6+. Further, Huawei now has IP Evolution (IPE), which has a much narrower scope than New IP.

A collective sigh of relief could be well imagined as a vast majority (84%) the ITU Member States ultimately chose the U.S. candidate, thereby aligning themselves with the vision of retaining an open and independent Internet.

Back on the Sustainable Development Goals Path


While the election of Bogdan-Martin alleviates some of the West’s concerns, it does not dissolve them completely. The SG has some influence as an elected member, but it remains limited in the forum of standardization. Any ITU member is allowed to submit proposals for standardization; and it is up to the individual work groups to flesh out those proposals into official recommendations, which are then voted on by Member States. The standard development process sits outside of the SG’s remit; nonetheless, the SG’s office can push through other initiatives and projects that can support or thwart this standardization work. Bogdan-Martin has a slew of these, but they are less focused on Internet infrastructure governance issues and are much more altruistic. Her goal (and a long-stated goal of the ITU) is to bridge the digital divide. Her focus will be on prioritizing universal digital connectivity for poor areas, women and girls, minorities, and people with disabilities, and ensuring the realization of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Her advocacy of these goals has been long in the making, and her election as SG will enable her to bring the full force of the SG office to bear on making them a reality.

One much less publicized priority outlined by the new SG concerns improving performance and governance, the latter being the key word here. Specifically, Bogdan-Martin has made clear her goal to “strengthen the transparency mechanisms that hold us [the ITU] accountable, and we will become known for our ethical integrity.” This is a direct riposte to much of the criticism thrown at the ITU over the last 8 years under Zhao’s mandate, where his own projects aligned closely with China’s vision.

Part of the message from the new SG here is answering those criticisms (mainly from the West) up front by promising better accountability and transparency, so that national policies have limited influence on those elected to the ITU’s upper management. But the other part is to restructure internal processes so they are resilient going forward, minimizing the impact that national pressures of future elected leadership might have on the ITU. Whether Bogdan-Martin will be able to achieve these, and in the process raise the ITU’s star once more, remains to be seen, but her track record has shown she is a deft negotiator and experienced technocrat, aptly suited to the tasks at hand.


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