The International Telecommunication Union: The Most Important UN Agency You Have Never Heard Of

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is a little-known, wonky multilateral organization first created to regulate the telegram industry. Today, it is responsible for the future of the internet, including critical standard-setting and 5G regulatory activities. These activities have particular potential for impact in the developing world. The ITU attracts strong activism (at high-level leadership and low-level study group levels) by U.S. strategic competitors. The organization’s mandate, composition, and upcoming leadership transition in 2023 make it an exceptionally important organization for identifying and advancing U.S. interests.

What Is the ITU?

First called the International Telegraph Union, the ITU was formed in 1865, 15 years before the invention of the radio, when a series of European states got together to regulate communications across borders. In 1942, the ITU became part of the wider United Nations family. Its current mandate calls on the organization to “ensure networks and technologies seamlessly interconnect, and strive to improve access to ICTs [information and communication technology] to underserved communities worldwide.” It does so through policy and regulatory activities and setting global standards and best practices for ICT services.

The ITU is made up of two types of members: traditional member states—193 countries—as well as 900 “sector members,” private sector corporations that have a seat at the decisionmaking table. The ITU is overseen by a secretary-general (SG), currently Zhao Houlin of China, who is supported by a Secretariat responsible for the organization's workflow, representational, and coordination activities. The Secretariat works closely with the ITU Council, an elected body made up of 25 percent of member states, which works to link the ITU’s main meeting (the Plenipotentiary Conference) and the organization’s regular portfolio. The Council is elected from the membership body for four-year terms.

The SG is elected every four years by a majority-rule, secret ballot process. The elections occur in three stages, with the SG selection followed by races for deputy SG and sector directors. These “down-ballot” races are also important; because of the technical nature of the organization, many SGs come up through the ranks. Houlin was selected as SG during the 2014 Plenipotentiary, when he ran unopposed for the position, and won a second term in 2018. Prior to his election, Houlin was the deputy SG, following a long career at the ITU as a technical expert. The 2022 Plenipotentiary will result in the selection of a new SG starting in 2023, and Houlin cannot run again.

The current organizational budget for 2020 is $350 million, and it also makes almost $200 million each year through membership fees and project-specific contributions (assessed contributions). The ITU employs 700 full-time staff, of which 350 are professional grade (excluding support staff such as drivers, translators, etc.). As of 2016, of these 350 staff, 9 (2.6 percent) are U.S. citizens.

In addition to the General Secretariat and Council, the ITU has three main technical sectors: T, R, and D, each of which have different areas of responsibility. The ITU-Telecommunication Standardization Sector (ITU-T) is responsible for setting international standards on issues such as internet connectivity and 5G technology. The ITU-Radiocommunication (ITU-R) manages radio systems, including satellite ownership and spectrum allocation. And the ITU-Development Sector (ITU-D) provides technical and capacity services for developing countries coming online in the digital space.

Standard Setting on the Global Stage

The ITU sets global ICT standards and makes policy on a range of critical telecom issues, although this occurs in a diffuse way. Each of the three ITU technical sectors organize “study groups” made up of experts that get together at meetings to discuss technical issues. The study groups write recommendations, which roll up to inform resolutions that are sent up to the larger body to vote on as decisions. Once a resolution receives unanimous vote by the members, it effectively becomes international law, enforced and implemented at the national level.

The relatively obtuse recommendations from the lower-level study groups may become codified legal standards that all member states are bound to. Therefore, to fully grasp the ITU’s power and regulatory ability is to understand that discussions that appear to be myopic and technical have implications for the use and application of digital technology worldwide. ITU decisions and outcomes are implemented through national-level rules and regulations. Member states are held accountable for implementing the terms of the resolutions and reporting to the ITU on progress. They are also implemented through technical standards and practices of private industry. ITU regulations matter; they determine what type of access to information you have when you open an internet browser or how much you pay for Netflix.

Each technical sector has its own study groups and conferences that meet every four years to review the study groups’ recommendations. ITU-T study groups cover issues such as operational standards, economic and policy issues, security, and facial recognition. These topics will be discussed at the next World Telecommunication Assembly, to be held virtually in March 2021. The meeting will feature an important discussion about China’s controversial proposal to advance a new internet protocol (IP). ITU-R study groups include topics like spectrum management, radio wave propagation, and satellite services. Recommendations from these six study groups are reviewed at the Radio Conference every four years. ITU-D has two study groups: one on the enabling environment and a second focused on cybersecurity. It meets at the World Telecom Development Conference—the next is planned for late 2021 in Ethiopia. The agreements from these various sector-focused study groups and sector meetings roll up into the main event—the ITU’s Plenipotentiary Conference, when members (both countries and companies) gather to discuss the recommendations that may become official standards, with official regulatory and legal implications.

The Role of the United States

The United States joined the ITU in 1908 as the organization expanded outward past European borders. The United States, alongside Japan, remains the ITU’s largest funder; both countries contribute 30 percent of the organization's regular budget. Traditionally, the United States has played a role of boundary setting at the ITU—careful to limit the ITU’s mandate and ensure the ICT sector can operate with as few regulations as possible. This includes taking positions to illustrate—in the words of one delegate in 2010—an “appropriately limited place in the internet ecosystem.” U.S. policymakers have tended to favor a “less-is-more” approach for the regulation of the internet, supporting interoperability and openness, independent of the forum.

However, there is recognition of the need to shift this policy of “no.” The 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy specifically calls for a more proactive approach to the ITU, including in support of the “free flow of data” and vested U.S. interests. Today, the first American (and first woman) is in an ITU leadership role: Doreen Bogdan Martin runs the ITU-D. There are also a number of U.S.-based private companies that are members of the ITU, including Facebook, Amazon Web Services, and Google.

What Is at Stake

U.S. competitors, notably from authoritarian states, have increased their interest and activism in the ITU, leading to concerns that their outsized influence in standards setting may lead to the bifurcation of the internet. Zhao Houlin is a Chinese national known for highly favorable comments and decisions in support of Chinese companies. China also has a memorandum of understanding between its Belt and Road Initiative and the ITU’s operational efforts. China sends the largest delegation to the ITU’s various study groups and is also represented by Huawei and other state-owned enterprises that are members. Working through these study groups, with the support of high-level ITU leadership, Huawei has introduced some 2,000 new standard proposals to ITU study groups on topics including 5G, cybersecurity, and artificial intelligence.

China’s most notable standard proposal is for a new IP, which has the potential to fundamentally reshape the internet by imposing a centralized, highly controllable Chinese model throughout the world. The IP proposal has solicited significant pushback from the United States and its allies for being antithetical to the principles of a free and open internet. Analysis of the IP proposal by Oxford Innovation Labs found that adoption of Huawei’s proposed standards would not only lead to a “splinternet,” but also create an opening for malign actors to “undermine the norms, predictability and security of today’s cyberspace—which would also impact human rights and widen the digital divide.” If the standards are approved, these risks would not only impact China, but developing countries reliant on Chinese infrastructure for their telecommunications. Systems would lack free and open standards and be primed for manipulation by autocrats that seek to limit civil liberties and human rights.

Long-Run Priorities for the U.S. Government

Washington should pursue a more robust and positivist engagement strategy with the ITU. While the organization may seem niche, its work has dramatic implications for the global digital architecture as well as U.S. economic interests and security. Policymakers should work to refine and consolidate a strategic approach that brings together development and diplomatic components of ITU engagement in partnership with the private sector.

The United States needs a stronger relationship with ITU-D at the country level, grounded in shared training and capacity building programs. Biden administration officials should work with technical experts to identify synergies between ITU-D capacity activities and its own ongoing development priorities, including those encapsulated in the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) 2020 Digital Strategy. They should invest in ensuring developing countries have a seat at the table on standard setting. The incoming administration also might consider applying internationally agreed digital principles and values to key discussions around connectivity and broadband expansion so they align with and advance international cooperation and best practices in development.

ITU-D and USAID have a number of common values and principles on which to base a potential formal or informal agreement for partnership. USAID missions should improve their visibility on ITU programming and consider supporting ITU-D extrabudgetary programs. There are many examples of scalable activities, including ITU’s “Centres of Excellence,” which offer telecommunication and ICT equipment and networks across the developing world. A second potential example is support for the ITU’s Project Giga, an ambitious, multi-stakeholder initiative to connect all students to the internet.

Policymakers should consider cooperation on education, including through the United States Telecommunication Training Institute (USTTI). This innovative program started at the 1982 ITU plenary, and since then has trained some 10,000 people from across the developing world in ICT infrastructure. Through engaging the private sector, the USTTI is able to offer employment-based training and amplify the shared values of free and open systems with some of the developing world's up-and-coming leaders. The model has the dual benefit of aiding the United States in alliance building across the ITU sectors and study groups.

The multi-stakeholder approach is an important one. Diplomatic representatives should advocate for civil society and advocacy watch groups to join the 900-member ITU body. NGO fora have proven useful in terms of accountability for other UN bodies, such as the Aria Forum. The newly established United States International Digital Economy and Telecommunication Advisory Committee offers an ideal and novel platform to encourage linkages between NGOs and private sector entities with a shared vision of emerging digital trends. It will also prove useful in facilitating partnerships with the ITU and the United States’ private sector.

The U.S. government should support Americans interested in secondments, rotations, or full employment at the ITU at all levels, and raise awareness of the importance of impartial leadership of the organization in advance of the 2022 elections (for the 2023 term). The United States should take steps, including the establishment of a communication plan that leans on the inclusion of bilateral partner interests, to prepare for both the SG election and down-ballot races for director-level staff, who eventually become candidates for the SG position. Planning for this election cycle should happen immediately. Ensuring the ITU has conductive leadership will make the organization less opaque and more responsive to the ideals of free and open systems.

The ITU’s 2020 Global Report states, “no single actor alone can achieve the ambitious goal of connecting everyone to universal, affordable broadband connectivity by 2030.” Nor should any bilateral set the rules around digital connectivity on its own. The United States can ensure this is the case by partnering with friends and allies. As the chair of the G20, for example, Japan prioritized fair and open digital systems, which can serve as the foundation for collaboration both at the bilateral and multilateral level.

Discussions at the ITU have a tremendous impact on the everyday lives of Americans. Washington, in coordination with allies, must strengthen its activism and coordination within the organization to ensure this impact is positive.

Kristen Cordell is a Council on Foreign Relations international affairs fellow with the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Her views are not representative of her home institution.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Kristen Cordell

Kristen Cordell

Former Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Project on Prosperity and Development