Moving multistakeholderism forward: Conceptual pointers from the working definition on Internet governance

by Anja Kovacs

Multistakeholderism has become a deeply contested term and practice. How can we fully address the controversies that surround it, especially regarding the roles and responsibilities of different stakeholders, so as to retain its democratising potential? Takes as her starting point the working definition of Internet governance included in the Tunis Agenda, Anja Kovacs provides three conceptual pointers that can help us move forward. This is the first part of a two-part post that draws on Anja's intervention in the session 'Multistakeholder Internet Governance: The Way Ahead' at the 2014 Asia Pacific Regional Internet Governance Forum.

As a civil society initiative, the interest of the Internet Democracy Project in multistakeholderism comes from the fact that it is the first governance model in which civil society is guaranteed a seat around the table. Whether you like it or not, formally or informally, businesses usually already have a seat. The voices that are not sufficiently heard are the voices of the people, of different groups of people, especially marginalised people. Why the Internet Democracy Project is interested in the debate about multistakeholderism, is because we see this potential in multistakeholderism. Whether the system at the moment is fulfilling that potential is a different matter — we believe that the potential exists, and that is why we engage.

It is important to emphasise, however, that we do not see the conversation about multistakeholderism as one in which we are trying to unearth a truth. It is not that multistakeholderism already exists and we are all, together, working to somehow determine what its true nature really is. What all of us involved in these debates and processes are doing, instead, is to proactively build a new system.

A working definition of Internet governance #

When we collectively think about the way forward for the global Internet governance ecosystem, it is therefore beneficial to start by taking a step back. Since we don’t have agreement on what multistakeholderism is, and since part of our task is to construct what it could be, the current state of multistakeholderism is not necessarily the most fruitful basis for our discussion. It doesn’t help us to see the big controversies in the debate from a new light.

Instead, I would like to suggest that we start from an aspect of the Tunis Agenda that seems to be far less controversial, which is the definition of Internet governance in paragraph 34. A core outcome of the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), the Tunis Agenda is perhaps unparalleled in the force that it has as a government-negotiated document on Internet-related international public policy issues. Though many aspects of the Tunis Agenda continue to be hotly contested, this is not true of its conceptualisation of Internet governance, which it defines 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 programmes that share the evolution and use of the Internet’.

Contained in this definition are the seeds of three crucial moves that can help take forward the debate on how the global internet governance framework, and multistakeholderism, should evolve.

Procedures need to be decided collectively #

First, it is important to recognise that the main emphasis in this definition of Internet governance is on constructing a normative framework together. It talks about decision making procedures, not about decisions. This is a very important distinction because it allows to recognise from the outset that some decisions may be taken multilaterally. At the same time, it also allows us to recognise that some decisions may be taken by one or more sets of actors who are not governments.

What the focus on norms, rules and decision-making procedures does mean as well, though, is that those decisions will always need to be embedded in, emerge out of procedures which have been developed and agreed upon by all the people who have a stake in the broader Internet governance ecosystem. To be legitimate, decisions need to be rooted in norms, rules and decision-making procedures that have been evolved collectively.

Stakeholder roles are not static #

The challenge remains, of course, that the Tunis Agenda also tries to fix what the roles and responsibilities of the different stakeholders are in a way that was never reflective of either reality or need. For civil society in particular, this is an issue. The Tunis Agenda acknowledges civil society’s role at community level’. But civil society also sometimes intervenes as experts. Sometimes it represents users. Sometimes it represents non-users and sometimes it is simply there to hold other actors accountable.

And this brings us to the second move, the seed of which is also contained in the working definition of Internet governance: by not fixing stakeholders’ responsibilities, the definition allows us space to recognise not only that different stakeholder groups have different roles in the process, but also that they have different roles at different stages of the process. Only by allowing for such flexibility can the heated question of the roles and responsibilities of different stakeholders be settled in a manner that allows every stakeholder group to play its role fully.

What does an equal footing’ mean? #

The third and final move then emerges from the earlier ones. Where the need for flexibility is recognised, it equally becomes easily evident that, especially in the later stages of negotiations, the notion of equal footing’ among stakeholder groups — which has been so controversial in the debate on multistakeholderism — at times may simply become irrelevant. Surely, at the early stages of a process, when norms, rules, procedures and even agendas are still being developed, it is absolutely crucial to have everybody fully engaged. As we progress, however, as the agenda narrows, as it is more clear what we are going to do, it also becomes evident who needs to have that final responsibility, and who therefore should be responsible for taking those final decisions. At the later stages of a process, not all stakeholders are necessarily involved in the same way.

For that reason, equal footing’ is not a term used much by the Internet Democracy Project — it is generally simply not a very useful concept if we are to move forward. The important thing is to recognise that there are different roles at different stages of the process for every single stakeholder group, and that each group should be fully involved as needed.

For the same reason, we don’t talk about a multistakeholder model, but instead refer to a multi-stakeholder approach. The term approach leaves far more space for recognising that different Internet governance issues will require different ways of involving stakeholders at different times in a process, if those issues are to move forward constructively.

We already have examples that illustrate how valuable it can be to broad-base decision making in multistakeholder approaches. Where Internet governance is concerned, the most noteworthy one in recent times is perhaps that of the Marco Civil da Internet, or Civil Rights Framework for the Internet, in Brazil. The Marco Civil was crowd-sourced: everyone could make proposals and comment on the draft, through an online platform. On the draft that went to the Brazilian Parliament, there was, thus, already a broad societal consensus. Yet when the draft reached Parliament, there was nevertheless a concerted attempt by certain businesses to undermine the Bill and to change the protections in the original version, especially with regard to net neutrality. I recognise that the reasons these businesses didn’t succeed were many. For one thing, the political moment was an opportune one. But it also mattered that there had been this broader consultation, which led to a mobilising of public opinion, so that when this debate happened on the Bill in Parliament, subverting it became so much more difficult.

Strong examples of how building decision making around multistakeholder processes really leads to better, more people-oriented policies, thus, already exist. Our task now is to broaden as well as deepen such trends.