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Trump’s Outrageous ITU Elections Gambit

First some background. Every four years, the 168-year-old, Geneva-based treaty organization that provides the legal basis for worldwide network communications, radio spectrum management, and satellite placements holds a “plenipotentiary” conference among its 193 sovereign nation members. The next plenipotentiary begins on 29 October for three weeks. In addition to potentially altering treaty provisions and resolutions, and constituting its Council as an interim governing body, it elects 17 individuals to its five permanent bodies: General Secretariat (2); Radio Regulations Board (12), Radiocommunication Bureau (1), Telecommunication Standardization Bureau (1), Telecommunication Development Bureau (1).

The elections this year would be otherwise un-notable if it were not for two controversial, highly disturbing actions by the Trump Administration. For the first time in the history of U.S. involvement in the ITU, it withdrew a candidate—the present U.S. Vice-Chair of the Radio Regulations Board which oversees global radio spectrum management and adjudicates disputes. She is the first African American woman to hold an ITU elected position who was originally nominated by the Obama Administration in 2014 and was likely to assume the Chair of the Board if she had continued.

The second Trump action involves the election of the Director of ITU’s Telecommunications Development Bureau (BDT). The BDT evolved from initiatives started in the 1950s to assist developing countries—especially in Africa where post-colonial challenges existed. It is the smallest of the ITU activities with no operational responsibilities. Because of the BDT’s focus, its elected Director has always been from a developing country. This time, the single publicly nominated candidate for BDT Director is exceptionally well-qualified if not unique—Jean Philemon Kissangou of Congo-Brazzaville.

In addition to being a graduate network engineer with additional academic credentials in telecommunications policy, he started up an Internet access provider, taught, headed up the national Internet Society chapter, became a Board Director of AfriNIC which manages internet address resources for the region, and became head of the telecom nation’s regulatory agency. He additionally articulated a comprehensive management plan for his role going forward. He plainly understands the challenges of bringing network connectivity and services to developing countries and has the real-life experience to prove it.

Instead of supporting Mr. Kissangou, the Trump Administration is trying to convince ITU Member nations to reject him in favour of a former member of the Dept of Commerce’s staff who has worked in a variety of staff support roles in the ITU’s Geneva secretariats for the past twenty-five years. Commerce’s promotional website simply touts her as “an experienced and judicious American” woman.

The Trump Administration has tasked several of its appointed Federal agency officials and overseas outposts to promote its would-be candidate. In one case, an FCC official recently made a not so veiled threat that U.S. funding of the ITU will decrease if Trump doesn’t get support for his candidate. In typical Trump alt-truth style, his minions are marketing their candidate as the ITU’s first elected women—when the ITU, in fact, has had women in elected positions since 2007. What they don’t say is that Trump just withdrew the re-nomination candidacy of the first elected African American woman in the ITU.

What is occurring here is little more than a clown show. It is ludicrous for U.S. officials to be talking about the importance of new 5G technologies, and then removing the U.S. vice chair of the key global board whose role includes overseeing those technologies. It makes no sense opposing Africa’s de facto candidate for running the activities largely designed to assist African members—especially one who is an experienced engineer and African internet development leader. And lastly, it is unfair for Trump to be using a long time ITU civil servant as a petard for his hostile political gambit and with the messaging that her qualifications are “an experienced and judicious American.”

What is even more bizarre about this Trump gambit is that although he has withdrawn the existing U.S. elected candidate to the Radio Regulations Board, he has actually not yet formally nominated his preferred BDT Director candidate. Furthermore, it is implausible that the votes would exist for such a dramatic, regionally unbalanced action. Thus, in Trump’s world of antipathy toward multilateral organizations and fake reality, it is possible that the real intent is to reduce the U.S. contribution to the ITU’s budget—which must be announced at the Plenipotentiary Conference. The election gambit is very possibly only a cover story. In the ITU, Member nations volunteer how much they financially contribute.

Trump’s reduction move would be foolish, however, as the U.S. financial contribution is relatively small and could be easily compensated by other nations. Additionally, the preponderance of the ITU budget goes toward its radio spectrum management activities. If Trump made use of his Intelligence Community which he seems to despise, they would likely have explained that ITU Radio Sector activities have always been essential to long-term U.S. strategic interests, and the growing importance of ITU in dealing with extraterritorial virtualized networks including 5G, will make the venue increasingly critical for cybersecurity.

This behaviour of the Trump Administration is an embarrassment to the nation and antithetical to U.S. interests and global cooperation. Moreover, it has disturbing racial overtones on an international scale that seem typical of Trump’s views about African nations and people.

The industry needs to speak out. NGOs, the internet community, and especially ICANN, need to become engaged in the upcoming BDT election to support a highly qualified, African internet leader from their ranks. Finally, ITU Member nations also need to send Trump a message that his bullying tactics here are unacceptable.

Disclaimer: The author is former FCC Senior International Policy Adviser, former ITU Chief of Telecommunication Regulations and Relations between Members, co-author of the reference book “ITU in A Changing World,” former Adjunct Professor at New York Law School.

By Anthony Rutkowski, Principal, Netmagic Associates LLC

The author is a leader in many international cybersecurity bodies developing global standards and legal norms over many years.

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Mr.Rutkowski dismisses Doreen Bogdan-Martin 25 years of Gary Fowlie  –  Sep 3, 2018 3:42 PM

Mr.Rutkowski dismisses Doreen Bogdan-Martin 25 years of experience in the ICT industry, satellite regulatory sector and policy leadership at the ITU as gained through a variety of ‘staff support roles’ at the ITU. Nothing is further from the truth. Ms. Bogdan-Martin was a driving force behind the founding of the Global Symposium for Regulators, the ITU-UNESCO Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development and the EQUALS in Tech initiative, which is addressing the growing digital gender divide square on. Her work has always focused on developing the private-public partnerships that are at the core of the ITU mission of providing connectivity for all. Yes, ITU has had women in lower level elected and support positions, but ITU has never had a women amongst the five elected senior leaders. The time has come for ITU to reflect the reality of ICT development; which is that it’s a shared responsibility of the developed and developing world and of both genders! This reality is codified in the 2015 UN Sustainable Development Agenda, which recognizes that ‘ICTs hold great potential for human progress’.  The ICT Development Sector needs a leader who understands this global imperative and is up to the challenge of ensuring that all 17 Goals and 169 targets are achieved by deploying the catalytic power of ICT access, skills and leadership. I believe Doreen reflects a new generation of ICT leaders who view innovative policy and technical solutions as intertwined and as an opportunity to revitalize the 153 year old mission of the ITU. I’m sure she will work hard to bring the first generation of post-Internet ‘digital natives’; which neither myself nor Mr. Rutkowski can claim to be, into the ITU Development fold. My experience with this generation is that regardless of which side of the global digital divide they were born into, they find it much easier to leave their geopolitical bias behind them when it comes to ensuring ICT access for all. ITU should heed their example.

Clarification Anthony Rutkowski  –  Sep 3, 2018 4:56 PM

The intent of my post was not to be dismissive of Ms. Bogdan-Martin’s 25 years of excellent work in the ITU secretariats - like so many of the ITU’s international civil servants who include my own former colleagues.

The article was focused on the incompetent actions of the Trump Administration on several levels.  Trump for the first time in ITU history withdrew the nomination of an exceptional and pioneering US candidate from continuation as vice-chair (and likely chair) on an ITU body of key importance today - the Radio Regulations Board.  She was the first black woman to hold an elected ITU position - with an absolutely outstanding professional engineering background that was optimum for the ITU leadership role.  The only apparent rationale for Trump’s action was that 1) she was nominated by President Obama, 2) that Trump did not appreciate her historical status and the importance of her position, and 3) she was sacrificed as a political favor to improve Ms. Bogdan-Martin’s candidacy.

Trump’s inappropriate gambit here also reflected the lack of appreciation for the leading BDT Director candidate - Jean Philemon Kissangou of Congo-Brazzaville - who is a professional engineer and businessman who has spent his career in a developing country, leader of its national Internet Society, and African leadership roles actually bringing about ICT infrastructure.  This is also a multilateral organization election where regional balance and representation is important, and Mr. Kissangou clearly fills that role among the elected officials.

So again, the election here is about what is the most desirable outcome among all ITU Members.  And here, the bungling, embarrassing incompetence and racist veneer of the Trump White House is all too apparent.

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