ITU gets its first female leader… and she’s American


The International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU’s) member states have elected Doreen Bogdan-Martin (pictured) as its new Secretary-General.

Bogdan-Martin will replace China’s Houlin Zhao as leader of the United Nations telecoms and ICT agency on 1 January, becoming its first female Secretary-General as well as the second American to hold the post since its inception in 1865.

The nationality of a new ITU head always captures headlines, but on this occasion perhaps more than usual, because Bogdan-Martin’s opponent in the election is Russian. While Bogdan-Martin is an ITU insider, having spent 28 years working there, latterly as Director of its Telecommunication Development Bureau, Rashid Ismailov hails from Vimpelcom and has a stint at the Russian telecoms ministry on his CV.

Cue a media furore about a US-Russia battle over the future of the Internet itself, with the the former being painted as on the side of openness and freedom, and the latter dogged by mutterings over censorship and increased government control.

There’s a kernel of truth in it. As you might expect, both candidates have been highly vocal on connecting the unconnected, driving digital inclusion, and so forth. But Ismailov’s heavily scrutinised – but very carefully worded – campaign comments also include references to the role of national states, transnational corporations and “influential regulators,” which plays into the Cold War narrative.

Nonetheless, the collective sigh-of-relief issued by the West when Bogdan-Martin won a landslide victory over Ismailov, with 139 votes to his 25, was probably unnecessary.

You could argue that under Houlin Zhao’s leadership the ITU has shown a favourable leaning towards Chinese companies and interests. There has certainly been an increased Chinese presence at the agency.

But at the same time, his eight-year tenure – Zhao was re-elected, uncontested, incidentally, in 2018 – coincided with a broad Western demonisation of Chinese-made equipment that has effectively forced Huawei and its compatriots out of mobile networks in many major economies. While that has little to do with the ITU, it does indicate the level of influence the UN body really has over the global telecoms market.

Women’s rights campaigners will – rightly – cheer the arrival of the first female Secretary-General. And we will doubtless hear more from her on that subject and similar.

“The world is facing significant challenges – escalating conflicts, a climate crisis, food security, gender inequalities, and 2.7 billion people with no access to the Internet,” she said, in a statement accompanying the ITU’s election result announcement. “I believe we, the ITU and our members, have an opportunity to make a transformational contribution. Continuous innovation can and will be a key enabler to facilitate resolution of many of these issues.”

The ITU does have a role to play in bringing people together to improve connectivity and setting standards, but its ability to shape the telecoms landscape will always fall behind that of politicians and big business.

Ultimately, talk of the US having defeated Russia in a battle for control of the global Internet is probably overblown.

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