Reflections on Multistakeholderism and Internet Governance

CGCS Director Monroe Price comments on Alexander Klimburg, Philipp Mirtl and Snezana Gjorgieva’s paper “Mapping Internet Terrain” which examines the ongoing power shifts between state and non-state actors in internet governance and uses linguistic analysis to map evolving meanings of terms such as multistakeholderism.

In February, CGCS’s Internet Policy Observatory (IPO) received a preliminary study by the Austrian internet scholar Alexander Klimburg and his team about the evolving meanings of critical internet governance terminology.  This paper is relevant for our IPO project as we are interested in examining key words and phrases within policy discourses, such as “multistakeholderism,” to map how the definitions and usages of these terms change over time to reflect shifting narratives and agendas. The challenge is to find interesting and original ways to do this. There has been lots of writing about multistakeholderism; however, encouraging work that is original, significant and capable of being completed in a manner that can illuminate ongoing debates can be a major task.

The fount of this particular debate could be the Working Group on Internet Governance, which, as the Klimburg study reminds, defined internet governance as, “the development and application by governments, the private sector and civil society, in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programs that shape the evolution and use of the Internet.”[1]

The Klimburg study sets the stage for research by saying that “while WSIS-II provided an explicit definition of Internet governance, it did not provide an explicit definition of the multi-stakeholder approach.”  Approaching that question through a linguistic analysis is the task the paper sets for itself.

Here’s how Klimburg et al define their study:

“While the multi-stakeholder concept is generally defined as the participation of representatives from governments, the private sector and civil society, there is no single overriding definition of the term itself. The implied use of the term is “equal participation” of the actors in managing the global Internet resources, however this principle of equal participation has increasingly been called into question – mostly by governments…[2] If Internet governance is thus construed of as a “battlefield” in the wider context of cyber diplomacy,[3] then the very definition of the multi-stakeholder concept can be seen as akin to a dominant terrain feature. And that terrain is changing.

To put these present changes within a historic context, and provide an example for future, more in depth research, this paper looks at a decisive moment in the history of Internet governance: a series of United Nations meetings between 2003 and 2005, where the multi-stakeholder concept emerged as a new phraseology in international cooperation.[4] More specifically, this paper looks at how the linguistic patterns of a defining international meeting – the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) – have reflected the power relationships within the field of Internet governance from the outset. While analyzing the impact of the associated Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) on the preparatory processes which eventually led to the final documents of the WSIS, this paper will attempt to shed some light on the power relations between state and non-state actors regarding their different “statuses” within the field of Internet governance.”[5]

Klimburg et al are relatively novel in their use of language to provide insight into the way multistakeholderism might be morphing critical terms, though some other papers, such as “Multistakeholderism in IGF Language,” engage in similar linguistic analysis.  Commenters, however, may differ on the use of corpus linguistic approaches, and our IPO would welcome comments on these studies’ methodologies and limitations.

The opportunities with linguistic approaches are rich and potentially rewarding.  The Klimburg paper suggests, for example, monitoring the growth of interest in, or absence of, the term “enhanced cooperation,” a relatively new formulation designed to signal a greater role for the government sector in the internet governance machinery.  The paper locates the term as a means to move multistakeholderism away from an implied notion of “equal participation” of various sectors towards a meaning with more governmental control.  Linguistic analysis helps show how this nuance occurs.

Most significantly, the paper turns—for its linguistic analysis—to the final documents of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).  It is here that Klimburg wishes to find

“the increasing influence of states within the broader field of Internet governance,” as it “has triggered substantial debate over the status of non-state actors.”[6]  By examining databases with these documents and analyzing the frequency of conjoined terms clues, Klimburg hopes to see what is missing from the standard definitions as well as what is evolving in terms of the relationship among actors.

Of course this method of linguistic analysis is not without its complications. For instance, the frequency of some terms, such as civil society, NGOs, sovereignty, might well depend on who commissions the studies in the database. As Klimburg indicates, it is also difficult to deal with complex implications, for example, what does equal mean in terms such as “equal participation” or equal representation?

The Klimburg paper also suggests a non-linguistic aspect of this. Take ongoing discussions regarding the changing meaning of multistakeholderism.  One could wonder, for example, about the relationship between definitions of “multistakeholderism” in global governance debates and internet policies, practices and procedures at a national level.  Japan, for example, seems to be a nation with a relatively weak civil society sector, and, therefore, relatively weak participation by civil society in internal decision-making. Assuming this is the case, what are the implications for Japan’s position in the foreign policy context on multistakeholderism? Put differently, with limited civil society stakeholders, is the definition of multistakeholderism, itself, an exercise in multiple influences?  How would Japan, or the United States, or civil society players, define the term? In other words, does a state’s foreign policy on multistakeholderism—its posture in debates at the Internet Governance Forum—reflect approaches to civil society within?

One could argue that there does not need to be any relationship between these two.  A society could be so configured for historic and constitutional reasons, that internal administrative decisions are decided centrally for efficiency and other reasons. Its approach to global policy may have a very different set of calculi.  In the case of Japan, for example, its international position tends to be aligned with that of the United States on these questions.  Allying oneself with the US on internet governance issues may not be costly even if this does not harmonize with practices internally.

Brendan Kuerbis, in his internet governance blog on new institutionalism and internet governance comes somewhat close to this issue. He raises the issue of isomorphism, used in this context as the tendency of “new” policies to be strongly influenced, almost to a controlling extent, by the styles and structures of the old.  Here Kuerbis is true to new institutionalism and its appreciation of inertia.  Once a meaning and process that is installed as multistakeholder takes hold, it is difficult to change. It is partly a process of such inertia, and partly the use of images and structures we know rather than different ones, even if there is a pretense of being innovative.

What we are likely to find, as a result of further linguistic studies by Klimburg and others is that words are made to do double duty:  to maintain elements of their past usage, but be thrust into new meanings without changing the outer shell.


[1]  World Summit on the Information Society. 2005. “Tunis Agenda for the Information Society (WSIS-
05/TUNIS/DOC/6(Rev. 1)-E).” Para. 34.
[2] See, for instance, Klimburg, Alexander. 2013. “Internet Yalta.“ Commentary at the Center for a New American Security, 5 February: 1-7.
[3] Klimburg, Alexander and Philipp Mirtl. 2012. “Cyberspace and Governance – A Primer.” oiip Working Paper 65 (September): 18-9.
[4] Kummer, Markus. 2013. “Multistakeholder Cooperation: Reflections on the emergence of a new phraseology in international cooperation.” ISOC Public Policy Blog (May).
[5] Klimburg, Alexander, Philip Mirtl, Snezana Gjorgieva. 2014. “Mapping the Internet Terrain: Some research notes on the multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance.” Center for Global Communication Studies IPO. 2-3.
[6] Klimburg et al, 2014, 7.//Featured Photo Credit:AttributionSome rights reserved by itupictures

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