The rise of Chinese actors in standardization organizations, which concerns many observers in the West, does not worry the outgoing International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Vice-Secretary-General Malcolm Johnson. In principle, China’s increasing commitment is a “good thing,” said the British government representative on Wednesday at a video conference organized by the Multilateral Dialogue Geneva of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS).
The activities of Chinese envoys have also increased significantly at the ITU, Johnson stated. Only 15 years ago, however, the USA, Japan, South Korea and Europe would have pushed new agreements on information and communication technologies (ICT) there more or less alone. As a result, the ITU identified an international “gap” in standardization issues and agreed to close this as much as possible.
“We wanted to involve the developing countries more,” emphasized Johnson. The more than 190 member states of the UN special organization would only understand the world of standards if they helped to develop and implement them. All nations, and above all the national company representatives who are also approved by the ITU, wanted to advance their own technology. Ultimately, however, most of the decisions at the World News Association are based on the principle of consensus, so that all sides have to make compromises. Finally, the chairman of a working group decides.
China pushes New IP for mass surveillance
According to a recently published study, the communist government in Beijing is trying to “abuse standardization as an instrument to promote technology that calls into question democratic values and human rights”. The researchers refer to the – still rather vague – initiative of the network supplier Huawei at the ITU level for a new Internet protocol called “New IP”, with which China could make its model of the state-controlled network, including mass surveillance and filters, socially acceptable.
Another thorn in the side of European standardization experts is the large number of standardization activities in China at all levels with top-down structures and clear political goals, which come up against limited resources in this area and a grassroots approach in the West. At the ITU, China already holds more leading positions than the US. Johnson has no problem with that: people should want to take up such positions, which is voluntary. Some companies apparently tried harder than others to advance their interests.
“All members can propose a standard,” explained the 75-year-old. Every company, regardless of its size, has the same opportunity, which is crucial for the success of the ITU. But then the broadest possible support is necessary, since only the whole group can advance a standard. The interaction is crucial, as it is also about important decisions such as agreements on the further use of the radio spectrum. If no agreement were reached here, “it would be chaotic” and everyone would lose in the end. The corona pandemic has shown how dependent the world is on internet technology such as video conferencing systems.
New leadership: Russian or American
Malcolm Johnson, Deputy Secretary General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). His term of office expires at the end of the year.
Founded in 1865, the ITU was responsible for many breakthroughs, such as in satellite communications and mobile communications. One of their current core concerns is making the Internet affordable for everyone and closing the digital divide. Ever since the Russian attack on Ukraine in February, times have become particularly difficult for multilateral cooperation.
It is precisely in this period that a new ITU leadership is elected, for which the members exceptionally have to raise their hands. The race is also held between a candidate from the Russian Federation and a nominee from the United States of America with Rashid Ismailow and Doreen Bogdan-Martin. Bogdan-Martin is currently Director of the ITU Office for Telecommunications Development. Ismailov used to be, among other things, a manager at Huawei and Deputy Minister of Communications of the Russian Federation. All signs point to some kind of protocol and proxy conflict.
The Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation thus has a choice of opposing Internet models: “One that is characterized by openness and networking, and one that is (state) controlled.” It’s about nothing less than the future of digital transformation.
Johnson: “Just manager”
Johnson thinks this is an exaggeration: the future general secretary, his deputy and three directors would be elected at the Plenipotentiary Conference, which opens on September 26 in Bucharest. All five would then have to decide unanimously as the Secretariat. It is only about management issues, not about political guidelines.
In general, Johnson urges keeping politics out of technical organizations. He doesn’t think much of the “code is law” concept, according to which the behavior and scope of action of users are regulated via program lines and other technical specifications.
In addition, the administration expert points out that all proposals for world conferences come from six major global regions. This helps resolve conflicts and avoid polarization. In this sense, it is beneficial that the EU and the USA want to coordinate more closely via a new body, the Trade and Technology Council: “Any consolidation of views at regional level helps.”
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