The election of Doreen Bogdan-Martin as Secretary General of the International Telecommunications Union was not just about selecting a top international bureaucrat. This election was effectively a referendum on how to rule the Republic of the Internet, an entity in which democracy has been backsliding for years.
Another option on the ballot was a former Deputy Minister of Russia and Huawei Executive, who is in favor of a Republic of the Internet where national sovereignty trumps human rights and democracy, with governments deciding what their citizens are allowed to do and see online and with whom they are allowed to connect.
For Bogdan-Martin, priorities include an open and interoperable internet governed not by states but by a multistakeholder group of actors, including civil society, companies, international fora and technical organizations. Yet, the election of the Bogdan-Martin does not close the debate; the battle to transform – or maintain – the way the internet is governed continues.
What is at stake in this fight is the future of the internet– the most important infrastructure of our time – and the capacity of 5 billion citizens online to enjoy a democratic space.
We spend nearly half of the time we are awake in this virtual Republic. It has its own set of rules, which in many cases allow for much more freedom to talk, discuss or obtain information than offline laws. Famously, Tunisians organized themselves using the internet to topple dictator Ben Ali in 2011. Sri Lankans did the same in the 2022 protests against the government.
The only way for repressive governments to counter this kind of mobilization is to shut down the internet. Look no further than Iran, where the government recently quickly shut down the internet as protests erupted in the country.
Despite recent efforts, the internet grows based on a decentralized network of networks that no one fully controls. Information, known as packages, travel from one network to another through layers such as your wifi router, the cable connecting your house to an internet provider or the undersea cable linking your country to the internet. A package containing a WhatsApp message from a dissident and a video of a cute capybara will be treated equally, as the different layers don’t care about the content and just move them from point A to point B.
Thanks to this design, the internet has become a powerful enemy of any authoritarian regime; one that these regimes have increasingly fought to weaken, or at least limit, both at the national as well the international level.
Nationally, legislation and actions have focused on restricting democratic principles online. Bangladesh’s Digital Security Act, Vietnam‘s and Turkey’s laws demanding to host data on their territory, are examples of how democracy in the Republic of the Internet is backsliding. Most famously, China has established a Great Firewall, a censorship system that blocks access to hundreds of websites for anyone inside China. The system is also used to boost locally grown services by cutting access to the Chinese market to potential competition like Meta or Google.
Authoritarian regimes are not alone in attempting to control the Republic of the Internet. Many democracies are also joining the wave. Indonesia has passed its Minister Regulation Number 5, which has been widely criticized by rights groups for its potential to become a censorship tool.
Similarly, Germany’s infamous NetzDG legislation has received widespread opposition for its potential violation of fundamental rights. From laws restricting social media posts, as for instance in Pakistan, to the use of spyware, for instance in Greece, countries are erecting building blocks to make the internet less democratic.
This happens with increasing frequency. In Uganda, the government shut down the internet ahead of the 2021 elections, drying up one of the main mobilization channels for the opposition, and costing millions of dollars to the Ugandan economy in the meantime. According to research, 34 countries shut down the internet in 2021, including during the elections in, Niger, Congo, Iran and Zambia and during unrest in several countries, including India, Myanmar, Afghanistan and Ethiopia. But Bogdan-Martin’s election is just a small victory in a long-term international geopolitical battle.
China and Russia are pushing for new “standards” for the internet and for more multilateral decisions on how the internet works. This includes a push for changing IP standards -the unique identifiers that allow information to land at the right place while travelling through the internet. Another initiative, also led by China, has been the World Internet Conference Organization, an attempt to exert further control over the way internet functions and is governed.
All odds are against democracy in the Republic of the Internet, even with Bogdan-Martin heading the ITU. It is only through a coordinated, multinational effort to protect the fundamental characteristics of democracy that the tide can be reversed.
Democracies must remain committed, at the national level, to protecting fundamental democratic rights, even during crises, as well as to ensure the protection of their citizens’ privacy and data rights through policies like the GDPR.
At the international level, a unified effort to protect the openness, interoperability and decentralized character of the internet is fundamental at all levels, including but not limited to the ITU. Without decisive actions in these two zones, democracy in the Republic of the Internet might become a thing of the past.