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Russia and China are in a battle with the U.S. over control of an obscure tech agency

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The U.S. and Russia are facing off again, but this time it's not over Ukraine. It's over leadership of a little-known international tech agency that's been around since the mid-1800s. The International Telecommunication Union was created to help standardize the telegraph, but it could be the place where the future of the internet is decided. NPR cybersecurity correspondent Jenna McLaughlin has the story.

JENNA MCLAUGHLIN, BYLINE: For Karen Kornbluh, it's a question of a free and open internet.

KAREN KORNBLUH: You know, in countries around the world, can citizens really know what's going on in their own countries abroad? And can they organize with each other, and can they be safe from surveillance?

MCLAUGHLIN: Kornbluh is a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund. She's been closely watching an election an ocean away, between an American and a Russian candidate. The American, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, touts unfettered internet access for everyone.

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DOREEN BOGDAN-MARTIN: My vision is to enable a trusted, connected digital future for all.

MCLAUGHLIN: Her opponent wants countries to have more control over how their citizens connect.

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RASHID ISMAILOV: I'm Rashid Ismailov, nominated by Russian Federation.

MCLAUGHLIN: Both were vying to lead something called the International Telecommunication Union.

KORNBLUH: It's the most important agency you've never heard of.

MCLAUGHLIN: The agency has been making sure people can communicate around the world since the 1860s, after something called the telegraph was invented.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: In Paris, the rulers of an uneasy world came to terms, faced with a new machine which abolished time and space.

MCLAUGHLIN: In the 1960s, the U.N. produced a short film to mark 100 years of the ITU.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Already, the lines of the telegraph stretched out and dared to cross the frontiers of sovereign states.

MCLAUGHLIN: The ITU does a lot of important work. It's the reason your cell phone works at home as well as in Toronto or Tokyo.

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MCLAUGHLIN: The ITU is also responsible for allocating radio bandwidth for everything from high-speed internet to HDTV.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: A huge 82-inch and a 65-inch - two for one, just 17.99. Whoa.

MCLAUGHLIN: These same kinds of technological advances helped me reach Ambassador Erica Barks-Ruggles in Bucharest.

ERICA BARKS-RUGGLES: If there weren't frequencies set aside for things like WhatsApp, which we're calling on, we wouldn't be able to do this either.

MCLAUGHLIN: She's the head of the U.S. delegation to the ITU conference. The U.S. is backing Doreen Bogdan-Martin at a moment when competition with Russia and China in all domains is so intense.

BOGDAN-MARTIN: She has a vision - putting right at the very front of her vision - connecting the 2.7 billion unconnected people in the world.

MCLAUGHLIN: In a first, President Biden threw his weight behind the American candidate. But in the Trump era, and even before, dating back to 9/11, there was less focus on these obscure international agencies. The thing is, their members make a lot of really key decisions. Without the U.S. taking a lead role, Russia and China felt emboldened to push for their policies, including inside the International Telecommunication Union. One of those policies is to allow individual countries more power over how the internet works. In Bucharest, Erica Barks-Ruggles says the U.S. believes in total openness.

BARKS-RUGGLES: There are others who disagree with that - who would like to be able to control when their citizens can talk to other people and what they can talk to them about, sometimes within their own countries - we've all heard about the Great Firewall - but also between countries.

MCLAUGHLIN: Of course, when Russia and China are pitching their vision to other countries, they don't always sell it so bluntly.

JUSTIN SHERMAN: Sometimes they go into a country's shore and they say, this is a way for you to stifle dissent.

MCLAUGHLIN: Justin Sherman is a fellow at the Atlantic Council.

SHERMAN: But in many cases, they say the West has dominated the internet since its inception. Silicon Valley is out of control. This is not about empowering China. This is not about empowering Russia. This is about empowering you.

MCLAUGHLIN: Getting back to that election in Bucharest, the reality is that the U.S. has been genuinely worried about the outcome. The result would be decided by a secret ballot, which means countries could vote in Russia's favor without anybody knowing. And so on the morning of September 29 in Bucharest, the winner was announced.

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BOGDAN-MARTIN: Distinguished colleagues, ladies and gentlemen...

MCLAUGHLIN: Doreen Bogdan-Martin prevailed. She got 139 votes out of 172 - the first woman to be ITU's leader ever.

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BOGDAN-MARTIN: I am deeply, deeply humbled and filled with emotion.

MCLAUGHLIN: Now the work begins. Members of the ITU will meet until mid-October, talking about everything from artificial intelligence to cybersecurity. But Chinese companies, like Huawei - they still want to take the lead in forging the future of 5G, setting the standards, convincing other countries that their vision is better. Justin Sherman at the Atlantic Council doesn't think it's going to be easy for the U.S.

SHERMAN: The Chinese government will continue trying to influence the ITU. This victory is a good thing, but the hard work doesn't stop.

MCLAUGHLIN: Even so, this is a unique moment for the U.S. to grab hold. The war in Ukraine might not be on the agenda at the conference, but it's on everyone's mind in Bucharest. The leader of the U.S. delegation, Erica Barks-Ruggles, says the message from other countries to Russia is pretty clear.

BARKS-RUGGLES: Communication infrastructure has been destroyed. Economies have been strained. A number of countries around the world have suffered shortages of grain and oil and things like this. And I think that they're saying, this is not the way we want the world run.

MCLAUGHLIN: A world that's moved way past the telegraph, but where nations are still fighting age-old battles. Jenna McLaughlin, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jenna McLaughlin
Jenna McLaughlin is NPR's cybersecurity correspondent, focusing on the intersection of national security and technology.