Has ‘multistakeholderism… become a mantra, void of its progressive potential and outcomes’? Stefania Milan and Arne Hintz analyze internet governance’s hyper-focus on multistakeholderism and how civil society should adapt a clear IG agenda.
“All I’m saying is, if #multistakeholder were a drinking game, I’d be in the hospital with alcohol poisoning right about now,” tweeted civil society delegate @pondswimmer during the opening ceremony of the recent Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Istanbul, where references to the multistakeholder principle were as omnipresent (and, seemingly, mandatory) as thanking the local organizers. Since the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2003 and 2005, the idea of bringing together governments, the business sector, and civil society for debate and policy development has been celebrated and promoted. Probably nowhere has multistakeholder governance been implemented as thoroughly as in internet governance, where civil society actors and experts occupy key positions in the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and where all stakeholders discuss relevant policy issues at the IGF on (supposedly) equal footing. It is now unimaginable to discuss the governance of the internet without some form of multistakeholder participation. References to multistakeholder processes have been pervasive in speeches and documents, from the official 2003 WSIS press release titled “Summit Breaks New Ground with Multi-Stakeholder Approach” which praised the method rather than highlighting the substantial issues of the summit, to the NETmundial outcome document calling for “democratic, multistakeholder processes, ensuring the meaningful and accountable participation of all stakeholders, including governments, the private sector, civil society, the technical community, the academic community and users.”
Multistakeholder governance has dramatically shifted traditional procedures of inter-governmental politics towards the inclusion of non-state actors. It has offered civil society organizations and individuals unprecedented opportunities to meet, develop policy preferences, and influence the decision-making process. Over the years, civil society groups have strenuously supported multistakeholder participation. However, from WSIS to NETmundial the results of participatory policy processes have often been questionable, and civil society’s views and preferences have rarely been fully reflected in decisions and documents. While the poor results of multistakeholder decision-making may, to some extent, be a logical outcome of a process that moderates the interests of different actors, it would be fatalistic to just accept it as a given, at a time when fundamental transformations of the internet are taking place – transformations that are led and dominated by actors other than civil society. Yet there seems to be resistance to openly questioning the notion, practice and implementation of multistakeholder governance, in fear of jeopardizing the results so laboriously obtained over time, to the effect that the defense and promotion of multistakeholderism has become a mantra, void of its progressive potential and outcomes.
The continued emphasis on a particular aspect of process and structure (i.e., multistakeholder decision-making), and its wide promotion across different sectors with very different interests, should instead raise critical questions. Just like 10 years ago at WSIS, this emphasis on the multistakeholder process risks overshadowing the substantial issues of internet policy. While civil society participants have been debating and struggling to preserve multistakeholder participation, governments and businesses have progressed rapidly in expanding surveillance, blocking and filtering, limiting net neutrality, and extending their control across cyberspace. Though the rhetoric of multistakeholderism is applied and upheld by almost all actors in the internet governance game, institutional frameworks move in a different direction as the World Economic Forum (i.e., big business and political elites) is capturing NETmundial and the Government Advisory Committee’s attempts at expanding its influence in ICANN. Multistakeholderism risks becoming a smokescreen that involves civil society in – and thereby legitimizes – substantial transformations that may not necessarily be in the interest of users and citizens.
If the focus on multistakeholder rhetoric at the recent IGF and ICANN meetings as well as NETmundial seems like a deja-vu from WSIS times, it may be useful to look back at those experiences and the lessons learnt back then. Two aspects of civil society involvement in WSIS seem particularly relevant:
- A common platform: Civil society developed its own final declaration as a) a distinct policy framework that served as a key outcome of the process, and b) a blueprint from which language could be transferred to the broader multistakeholder declaration.
- Leverage: Civil society (at least, during the WSIS 1 process) increasingly understood its powerful and influential role as a legitimising force, and used it strategically, for example by threatening to leave the process when its demands were not heard.
Based on these two factors, civil society approached the multistakeholder process from a position of strength. It supported and engaged with the process, but it was not dependent on it, and it understood that there are limits at which productive engagement turns into counter-productive cooptation for negative ends. It acknowledged that multistakeholderism is not an end in itself and that it has to be assessed according to the actual policy outcomes that it achieves, i.e. whether it makes the internet a better and freer place and whether it manages to restrict the control interests of other stakeholders.
Today, in a post-Snowden world that is marked by the omnipresent abuse of human rights on the internet and pervasive control of information and communication (by governments in the North and South, East and West, as well as by business actors and intermediaries), we may wonder whether what is needed is more multistakeholder compromise or rather a clearer agenda of how civil society envisions the further development of the internet, a better idea of how to achieve it, and a position of strength that supports this vision. (Incidentally, this very same strategy is applied by states and businesses, despite all claims of multistakeholderism.) A clearer and autonomously developed civil society agenda may not (and most likely should not) replace multistakeholder debate, but should seek to generate the conditions under which such debate can be useful and fruitful.
There are many possible steps towards this goal. They may involve closer connections between civil society groups participating in IGF/ICANN/NETmundial/etc. and those that organize alternative forums such as the recent Internet Ungovernance Forum in Istanbul. It may mean to broaden emerging networks such as Best Bits, a coalition of civil society organizations and individuals “advancing broadly shared civil society interests in Internet governance,” or the ICANN NonCommercial Users Constituency, whose activities extend well beyond ICANN. It might involve, as the WSIS 1 experience teaches us, developing good documents that clearly articulate civil society’s views and preferences rather than spending energies exclusively in wishy-washy multistakeholder negotiations and documents. It should also incorporate a stronger perspective on (and support for) the self-organized development of alternative infrastructures, communication platforms, disruptive encryption tools, etc. that grassroots activists are increasingly engaging in outside the global internet governance debate.
As an increasing number of voices claim that the internet is broken, it is not immediately obvious why the most useful approach at this point in time would be to keep discussing with those who broke it. It may, rather, be the moment to reflect on the diametrically opposed interests of the different players in the multistakeholder game, as well as the unequal distribution of power and resources that influences its results. We do not believe that the problems that were (partly, or largely) created by governments can be resolved by the greater involvement of state actors in internet governance (as others seem to suggest). However, civil society may benefit from, and strengthen its position by, re-focusing its efforts towards developing clearer and, if necessary, distinct civil society positions. We need more conflict, rather than more multistakeholder ‘consensus.’
 At the same time, we believe multistakeholder processes, as spaces of convergence of different agendas, have something to offer. In this light, we support the campaign for the extension of the mandate of the Internet Governance Forum, due to expire in 2014.
Arne Hintz is a lecturer at Cardiff University, UK; Stefania Milan is an assistant professor at Tilburg University, the Netherlands, and an IPO associate. We are regular participants in multistakeholder processes and we value their possibilities, even though in earlier writings we have also criticized their shortcomings. We hope this provocative post will stir a debate within civil society at this crucial point in the internet history, when multistakeholder processes have multiplied, and civil society risks to get lost in the details.