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U.N. tech standards race sets up a proxy battle between U.S., Russia
U.S. officials have voiced mounting concerns about ceding leadership to China and other rivals in setting global technical standards for emerging technologies like 5G and artificial intelligence, which could have sweeping implications on economic development and internet access.
This week, scores of U.S. diplomats, regulators and Biden administration officials are pushing to gain new ground, converging on the United Nations to rally behind their preferred candidate to lead a key digital standards unit.
Up for grabs is the top role of secretary general at the U.N.’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a 157-year old specialist agency that helps to oversee how radio waves are divvied up globally and how different technologies interconnect across borders.
The election formally pits Doreen Bogdan-Martin, an American ITU veteran backed by the White House, against Rashid Ismailov, a former Russian government official and Huawei executive. Current and former U.S. officials say what’s on the line is much bigger — it’s a battle between competing visions for the future of emerging technologies and the internet.
Tom Wheeler, former Democratic chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, last month called it “the most important election you never heard of,” featuring a choice between an “open internet, or a kind of state-controlled internet that resembles Russia’s and China’s.”
The Biden administration seemingly shares that urgency, deploying a massive delegation to the ITU conference kicking off Monday that will decide the fate of the top role.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information April McClain-Delaney, one of the officials heading to the summit in Bucharest, Romania, told me that the contest between Bogdan-Martin and Ismailov “is a stark choice in terms of vision and openness.”
China has increasingly sought to exert influence over global standards-setting bodies over the past decade, including the ITU, prompting U.S. concerns that the tactic will shape what technologies are adopted and further fracture the internet between the West and its rivals.
Sean Kelly, a spokesperson for Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), called it “critical that someone like Doreen Bogdan-Martin represent the U.S” and that “we encourage trusted companies to participate and lead in these international standards bodies.” Kelly added that it would “thwart any efforts by adversaries like Russia and China to control our technological future.”
Current and former U.S. officials have expressed concern that China and Russia are pushing to broaden the scope of the ITU’s work to include more sweeping internet governance and to shift away from its decentralized decision-making process.
“Some of these more autocratic nations want to go in and have more of a top-down approach and have more control over the type of internet and the standards,” McClain-Delaney said.
She added, “I think the other big issue is mission creep. … We don’t want it to go into internet regulation, or a broader regulatory regime, because digital taxation — those issues are really handled in other forums.”
Top U.S. officials are arguing that Bogdan-Smith would be a win both for greater inclusivity in decision-making at the agency, which has nearly 200 member states, and for more emphasis on digital equality as a result.
McClain-Delaney argued that under Ismailov, “the vision, the priorities of the ITU would definitely be much less inclusive.” Geoffrey Starks, a Democrat who sits on the Federal Communications Commission, said in an interview that Bodgan-Smith aims to deliver “an inclusive digital future where everyone’s connected, everyone has access to the opportunities that the internet brings.”
Democratic FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in a statement highlighted Bogdan-Smith’s “proven track record of driving greater broadband and modern communications in all countries.”
During a news conference last week, Ismailov pushed back on the notion that under him the ITU would take on a greater role in issues like content regulation.
“I don’t think the ITU will be able to control or regulate that,” he said, according to an official translation. And he suggested efforts to expand internet regulation reflect member interest.
“Those organizations who don’t want to have any regulation, they’re saying that the ITU tries to take over the regulation and the management of the internet,” he said. “That is not so. The representatives of the countries want to have an international legal framework on the regulation of the internet and to agree on it.”
Ismailov also disputed suggestions that what he’s pushing for will fragment the internet.
“We would like the internet to remain a unified platform, a single space,” he said.
Natalia Abbakumova from Moscow contributed to this report.
Iranians are grappling with widespread internet blackouts
Amid intensifying national protests and widespread internet outrages, Iranians are turning to virtual private networks and other tactics to get online, Bloomberg News’s Patrick Sykes, Thomas Seal, and Arsalan Shahla report.
“On Friday, mobile networks suffered a ‘full shutdown,’ according to Cloudflare, a content delivery network business,” the report said. “That follows nationwide blackouts from 3:30 p.m. until about 10 p.m. on Wednesday, according to a blog post from the company. Iran’s internet use is heavily mobile-based, with some 85% of site requests coming from mobile devices, the blog added.”
Blocks in Iran against many virtual private networks and major platforms like Google, however, are hampering efforts to connect to the internet. In response, the U.S. Treasury Department on Friday issued guidance expanding internet services in Iran despite sanctions against the country, as Reuters reported.
House Republicans set sights on Silicon Valley in midterm agenda
House Republicans unveiled a midterm agenda Friday that took direct aim at the tech giants over allegations they are biased against conservatives and pose risks to children.
The “Commitment to America” includes as a central plank a pledge to “confront big tech and demand fairness,” and criticized tech companies for “crystalizing an ideological echo chamber” and creating addictive apps that pose “potentially devastating consequences” for children.
While sparse on specific policy proposals, the agenda calls for boosting data privacy and security protections and giving parents “more tools to keep their kids safe online,” offering a potential preview of the legislation GOP leaders will pursue if they retake Congress.
Amazon, AT&T could foot some of the biggest bills under new minimum tax
A handful of large companies, including e-commerce behemoth Amazon and telecom giant AT&T, could bear most of the financial burden from the 15 percent corporate minimum tax signed into law last month, the Wall Street Journal’s Richard Rubin and Theo Francis report.
According to a new estimate out of the University of North Carolina, the report said, “Berkshire Hathaway would have paid the most in 2021, at $8.3 billion — or about a quarter of the estimated total — followed by Amazon at $2.8 billion and Ford Motor Co. at $1.9 billion. Add the next three companies, and that reflects more than half the $31.8 billion total: AT&T Inc. at $1.5 billion, eBay Inc. at $1.3 billion, and Moderna Inc. at $1.2 billion.
“Amazon declined to comment on the figure but said it awaits federal guidance. Amazon said its taxes reflect a combination of investment and compensation decisions and U.S. laws.” (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.) “An AT&T spokesman said the company doesn’t expect the minimum tax to affect its 2023 tax bill.”
- Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Sameera Fazili, the deputy director of the White House’s National Economic Council, speak at an event hosted by the the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution on the technology and service sectors Wednesday.
- Microsoft chief information security officer Bret Arsenault discusses cloud innovation and security at a Washington Post Live event on Wednesday at 9 a.m.
- The House Science Committee holds a hearing on artificial intelligence Thursday at 10:30 a.m.
- Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the top ranking members on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, discuss privacy legislation at a Washington Post Live event Thursday at 11 a.m.
- Raimondo discusses semiconductor legislation at an event hosted by the Global Tech Security Commission on Thursday at 11:15 a.m.