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Cannot Be Assumed Russia Won’t Represent UN Tech Regulator Despite Invasion, Experts Say

Experts warned Thursday that American leadership on the ITU is not a slam dunk.

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Screenshot of Justin Sherman

WASHINGTON, June 2, 2022 – Experts speculated Thursday that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will not necessarily sway votes against a Kremlin representative sitting as the next secretary general of the United Nations’ technology regulator, the International Telecommunications Union.

The ITU exists to develop international connectivity standards in communications networks and improving access to information and communication technologies for underserved communities worldwide.

American candidate Doreen Bogdan-Martin runs against Russian candidate Rashid Ismailov in what former representative Chris Carney called the “most important election the American people have ever heard of.”

“We really need to not get ahead of ourselves and think that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will necessarily hurt Ismailov’s chances of being elected,” said Mercedes Page, fellow at the International Strategy Forum, at an event Thursday held by the Atlantic Council. “There are many countries that are supportive of more sovereignty over the internet and internet governance in telecommunications more broadly… That is where the root of the election is.”

The new secretary general will replace China’s Houlin Zhao, who has served in the position for eight years. The election will take place during the plenipotentiary conference in September.

“How countries are going to vote is extremely up in the air right now,” added fellow at Cyber Statecraft Initiative, Justin Sherman. He indicated that there has been a shift of country support recently. For years, there were liberal governments favoring an open internet approach on one side and authoritarian countries on the other. Swing states like India and Brazil have started voting with more closed-internet policies.

Sherman mentioned that one week after Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, the ITU, at the proposal of the US and other western democracies, held a vote to kick some Russian representatives out of certain working groups. The vote breakdown showed that swing and developing countries abstained – indicating that these countries may be willing to side with the Russian candidate in the upcoming election.

Ismailov has support from China, added Page, and there are many other countries that are sympathetic to Russia’s agenda.

What’s at stake

“This is a really important election for shaping two core things at the center of the internet,” said Sherman. “One is tech standards, and the other is processes and authorities for internet governance. We’ve seen how open multistakeholder tech standards [supported by democratic nations] have been really valuable for calling people in other countries and trying to bring internet access and broadband connectivity to low-income countries. It’s been enormously helpful for national security to have consistent standards.”

Russia seeks to limit these benefits by pushing greater state control of the internet and will attempt change ITU standards, alleged Sherman. It will have ITU take over and essentially destroy internet governance organizations.

Panelists concurred that if Bogdan-Martin does not prevail in the election, the United States must begin to consider the coming election in four years. The U.S. must be prepared to work with other countries to ensure the desired results, they said.

The candidates

Bogdan-Martin is currently the director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau, “where she is leading efforts to transform the global digital landscape to improve connectivity, close gaps in infrastructure, elevate youth voices, and make the digital future more inclusive and sustainable for all,” the ITU website said.

Rashid Ismailov has worked in the telecommunication sector for over 20 years and has held various positions in Ericsson Russia, the largest network provider in Russia. He will work to, according to the website, “rise to the major challenge of modernity, emphasizing the importance of individual human beings.”

International

U.S. Must Lead on International Tech Standards to Counter Chinese Influence: Raimondo

Raimondo’s comments come after the election of an American to head the UN’s telecom regulator.

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Screenshot of Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., November 30, 2022 – Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo on Wednesday called for strong American leadership on international technology governance in opposition to expanding Chinese influence.

China is attempting to “game the global system” by advocating international tech standards that favor “authoritarian standards and values,” Raimondo said in a speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Such efforts not only disadvantage American companies, the secretary argued, but threaten the free flow of information and data privacy.

“In recent years, China has purposefully and aggressively assumed leadership positions in several important international tech standard-setting bodies,” Raimondo said, endorsing American collaboration with allies against China’s aggression.

Raimondo’s comments come after American Doreen Bogdan-Martin was in September elected secretary general of the International Telecommunications Union, the telecom regulator of the United Nations. Bogdan-Martin defeated a Russian challenger to the applause of American officials and experts.

Last month, Commerce moved to prohibit the export to China of certain chips necessary for supercomputers and to prevent other countries from providing China with certain semiconductors made with American technology. The Chips and Science Act, signed into law this summer, intends to incent the domestic production of supply chain products, including semiconductor chips, which are traditionally imported from Asia.

Establishing digital governance framework difficult

Although there is wide international discussion of digital governance, there isn’t yet a comprehensive global regulatory framework. According to an expert panel speaking at Princeton University on Tuesday, the establishment of such a framework is difficult due to regional variation in attitudes toward digital governance and markets and power imbalances between developed and developing nations.

There are three primary theaters of digital governance, said Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America and professor emerita at Princeton University.

First, American digital markets are freer than those of the European Union and China, she said. Across the Atlantic, the EU has, with such regulatory schemes as the General Data Protection Regulation, Digital Services Act, and Digital Markets Act, intervened heavily in digital commerce with the stated goal of protecting competition as well as the privacy and safety individuals. Then there’s Russia and China, which are far more authoritarian than the America or the EU, Slaughter said.

The panel’s moderator, Candace Rondeaux, director of the Planetary Politics Initiative at New America, said less developed countries often lack the knowledge and technology necessary to compete globally. Slaughter argued that such countries, like Kenya, are often reticent to accept international standards that they lack the power to influence.

“From first principles…I want there to be a broadly global, open, secure, equitable, and accountable internet,” Slaughter said, but recognized her perspective might shift if she were a member of the “Kenyan or any other government that really doesn’t have either access or any ability to make these rules.”

Slaughter predicted eventual global agreement on basic, security-based protocols, but said “it may take decades before we get to anything that really looks like an identifiable global regime.”

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China

Report Urges States, Local Governments Follow Federal Rules on Prohibited Equipment Purchases

Only a handful of states have crafted their purchasing decisions after federal rules banning certain companies’ equipment.

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Members of the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University

WASHINGTON, November 14, 2022 – A think tank is recommending state and local governments align their rules on buying technology from companies with federal guidelines that prevent agencies from purchasing certain prohibited foreign technology, such as ones from Chinese companies.

The Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University notified the Federal Communications Commission late last month of a report released that month regarding what it said was a concerning trend of state and local governments having outdated procurement policies that are seeing them purchase equipment banned for federal purchase.

“State and local policymakers should not be expected to independently analyze and address the threats posed by foreign technology, but it would behoove them to align their own procurement practices with the rules set by the federal government,” the report recommends.

The FCC has a list of companies, as required by the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act of 2019, that it updates on a rolling basis through commission votes that it says pose a national security threat to the country’s networks. It last updated the list in September, when it added Pacific Network Corp. and China Unicom Operations Ltd. to the growing list that already includes Huawei and ZTE.

Chinese companies and following Communist Party directions

U.S. officials and experts have warned that Chinese companies operating anywhere in the world must follow directions of the Chinese Communist Party, which they say could mean anything from surveillance to American data falling into the hands of that government.

The report notes at least six state governments had their networks breached by a state-sponsored Chinese hacking group between May 2021 and February 2022.

The only states that have enacted local regulations aligned with federal provisions are Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, and Vermont, the report said. Provisions in Georgia and Texas prohibit private companies from entering into agreements with the covered companies. Vermont, Texas and Florida provisions block state entities from purchasing equipment from countries like China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela and Syria. Louisiana and Georgia provisions ban public-funded schools from buying prohibited technology.

The remaining 45 states do not explicitly target the equipment and services they produce, nor are they directly responsible for following federal provisions, the report said, leaving state entities vulnerable in obtaining equipment from third party contractors that could pose a security risk.

“Many government entities also lack the in-house technical expertise and procedures to understand and address such threats in the first place, and those that do may prioritize addressing immediate threats like ransomware over the more abstract risks posed by foreign ICTS,” the report said.

Section 889 of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act is one out of four federal provisions addressing the issue, prohibiting federal agencies from using equipment and services from Huawei, ZTE, Hikvision, Dahua and Hytera as well as working with contractors that use the equipment.

Prohibited products finding their way in

In some cases, the report said, the listed companies will sell their products to third party contractors that are not listed on Section 889 to bypass regulations, according to the report. Due to the low cost of Chinese equipment, public schools and local governments will purchase from the third-party entities that are unknowingly selling prohibited equipment, it added.

“These ‘middle-man’ vendors can mask the origin of their products, which creates major challenges for organizations aiming to keep certain equipment and services off their networks”, the report reads.

“Currently, contractors are responsible for self-certifying that their products and internal networks do not contain covered [products]” and “… inspecting the IT infrastructure—equipment, services, and components – of every contractor that does business with the federal government would require a staggering level of resources, making it difficult for agencies to conduct effective oversight.”

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International

U.S. Visa Policy Decreases Opportunity for International IT Standards Leadership

The ability of the country to host standard-setting conferences is key to its status as a global giant.

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Screenshot of Phil Wenblomm, Intel's director of standards

WASHINGTON, June 6, 2022 – Policy experts in May highlighted challenges to U.S. leadership in information technology standards, with lack of visa access to foreigners entering the country emerging as a problem area for the country.

That’s because foreign participation in U.S.-hosted standards meetings have been shown, according to the experts, to attract more participation on those standards.

“[D]ifferent studies show that when you host a meeting in a country, you get more participants from that country,” Phil Wennblom, Intel’s director of standards, said at a US Telecom event last month.

“And right now the U.S. is a fantastic venue for standards meetings – people love to come to the U.S. Except for all the difficulties of getting a visa and entry in the country,” he added.

According to Chris Boyer, AT&T’s vice president of global security and technology policy and another participant in USTelecom’s event, most standards meetings are currently hosted overseas, emphasizing the need for continuous research and development to maintain American power, “The best way to influence standards is to have the best tech.”

Discussions on IT standards take place against the backdrop of a technological battle brewing between the West and China and Russia to advance global IT policy toward their own interests. Last week, a panel at an Atlantic Council event noted that it cannot be assumed that Russia won’t be the next representative of the United Nations’ technology regulator, the International Telecommunications Union, just because it is in the midst of a war.

Wennblom also emphasized than in order for adopted standards such as on cybersecurity to be trusted and accepted as methodologically sound, they must be developed in committees with “wide participation and wide visibility” and “when it is fully transparent and all sorts of diverse experts participate.”

Wennblom stated a need for visa barriers to be reduced so that the U.S. may host more of such meetings and create more opportunity for itself in dialoguing on global standards.

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