Moving multistakeholderism forward: Lessons from the NETmundial

by Anja Kovacs

The NETmundial that took place in Sao Paulo on 23 and 24 April has been widely heralded as a success. In particular, it has been argued that the meeting illustrated the viability of the multistakeholder model. But in civil society in particular, while the NETmundial is believed to represent many gains, assessments have been more nuanced, argues Anja Kovacs in a commentary first published in Internet Policy Review: Journal on Internet Regulation.

SOME STAKEHOLDERS MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS?

That all stakeholders were able to present their views on an equal footing, both before and during the meeting, is an important step forward in terms of process. That the needs to govern the internet in the public interest and on the basis of human rights as well as to strengthen the multistakeholder model have all been explicitly acknowledged in the outcome document are significant substantive achievements.

But what to make of the fact that in the very last moments of the negotiations around the outcome document, a relatively small group of actors, in particular powerful governments, managed to override text on three crucial issues that had received widespread agreement and/​or replace it with their own? Though net neutrality, mass surveillance and access to knowledge were among the most commented-on issues at the NETmundial, the text that had emerged as a consensus in the drafting groups based on those comments was in the final hour not accepted by some of the most powerful players in internet governance.

In the aftermath of the NETmundial, complaints by members of civil society about this have frequently been met by admonishments (often from people belonging to other stakeholder groups) that nobody got everything they wanted”. But civil society would be wise to think beyond such clichés if businesses with financial power or countries with political power continue to be able to overthrow at the last moment text on core issues that otherwise receives wide support. Though invitations to not-so-usual suspects to join the conversation” and take a seat at the table” might seem powerful in themselves, they really are significant only if those not-so-usual suspects are able to make their interpretations stick – if they are able to influence decision making. What the events in the final hours of the NETmundial brought starkly to the fore is that participation on an equal footing does not necessarily translate into more democratic decision-making: in the absence of appropriate checks and balances, multistakeholder decision-making processes simply replicate existing, deeply unequal power relations.

WHY CIVIL SOCIETY SHOULD TAKE NOTE

For many in the technical community, the way in which big business and powerful governments determined the outcome of the NETmundial did not seem to be a great cause for concern. As multistakeholderism has been a key aspect of the development of these organisations, many of which are flush with money themselves, this should perhaps not be surprising: broad uncritical support for multistakeholderism is likely to only further validate the continuation of that approach, and thus of the ecosystem that these organisations have spawned, without too many adjustments asked to be made.

But while criticisms of multistakeholderism are often done away with by powerful players, in a somewhat patronising manner, as misunderstandings that can be accounted for by a lack of experience or insight, pointing out such shortcomings and contradictions in multistakeholder processes as they unfold is extremely important for civil society if it is to be effective in its internet governance policy advocacy.

For one thing, there is a real risk of multistakeholder participation being used to whitewash otherwise illegitimate outcomes such as the treatment of access to knowledge in the NETmundial text, including in the section on intermediary liability. Though this choice was undoubtedly motivated by good intentions, it deserves to be noted in this context that the NETmundial outcome document is officially titled the NETmundial Multistakeholder Statement of Sao Paulo”.

Furthermore, participation without impact effectively entails civil society giving the little power that it has away. Having a seat at the table requires a different way of engaging with policy making processes than being an outside observer does; in particular, it frequently demands the exercise of a certain amount of discretion and an ability to compromise. For civil society, this poses a considerable challenge, as its power is not political or economic in nature but lies precisely in its ability to take strong, uncompromising principled stances and in disregarding discretion to use information hitherto available only to a privileged few to mobilise public opinion.

If multistakeholderism requires civil society to bludgeon its most important tools while doing very little to effectively augment its impact on internet governance decision-making, it thus deserves to be questioned how valuable a multistakeholder approach to internet governance really is for those concerned with putting people’s interests and concerns at the heart of that agenda.

BALANCING POWERTHROUGHSECOND NETMUNDIAL?

The above does not in any way minimise the importance or value of the NETmundial meeting. The Brazilian government has to be commended for its courage to undertake this experiment, to put completely new and ground-breaking processes on the rails in such a short time, to push both multistakeholderism and the substantive debates around internet governance to new heights. In doing so, it deserves to be acknowledged however, it has also provided an opportunity for the cracks and tensions in multistakeholderism as it exists today, and especially its democratic deficit, to show up as never before.

How we will remember the contribution of the NETmundial to multistakeholderism ten years down the line will then depend to a large extent on how we will deal with the contradictions that have come to light so sharply today. It is crucial that the strong language in the NETmundial outcome document on the need to improve multistakeholderism in line with democracy, especially on the parameters of transparency and accountability, is translated into concrete, measurable goals at the earliest. Some steps, such as ensuring that all nomination processes (e.g., those for the Internet Governance Forum Multistakeholder Advisory Group) are open and transparent, can be taken immediately.

Other proposals, such as putting into place a more encompassing right to information agreement to cover all internet governance institutions, will take more time to find consensus around and be operationalised. In parallel, the conversation around respective stakeholder groups’ roles and responsibilities should be taken forward in an outcome-oriented manner, possibly in the context of specific internet governance processes to start with, taking into account that for each stakeholder group, roles and responsibilities will differ depending on the issue and venue for discussion. It is through this exercise that power imbalances can both be identified and rectified where required.

Where to have these conversations across stakeholder groups? Somewhat ironically, a second NETmundial, specifically on the topic of multistakeholderism, might well be the most appropriate place. Perhaps it is this recognition that is the most significant testimony to its likely enduring legacy.