Moving multistakeholderism forward: Four practical proposals

by Anja Kovacs

In a previous post, Anja Kovacs used the widely accepted working definition of Internet governance that is contained in the Tunis Agenda as a starting point to highlight three conceptual moves that the Internet governance community should make to address current controversies regarding multistakeholderism head-on while at the same time strengthening its democratising potential. In the current post, she in addition makes four practical proposals to strengthen multistakeholderism's legitimacy and accountability. This is the second 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.

While conceptual clarifications can be of crucial importance to move the debate on multistakeholderism forward in a productive manner, of equal importance are concrete and immediate improvements in such processes in practice. We believe four issues in particular deserve our immediate attention — both because they are crucial to the quality of multistakeholder governance processes and because they will lead to an immediate strengthening of their legitimacy and accountability.

First, it is important to realise that there is a big difference between open and closed processes — and especially when there is still very little agreement on how to take something forward, it is crucial to ensure that processes are as open as possible. This was the value of the NETmundial, but also of the Multistakeholder Preparatory Platform (MPP) for the WSIS+10 HIgh Level Event in June 2014. In the context of the latter, anybody could make written contributions; anybody could come to the meeting; all the contributions were taken into account in the draft; and in the meeting everybody had the same speaking rights. By inviting everyone in, such processes play a crucial role in the building of, the slow move towards a new consensus.

At this point in time, marked by strong disagreements on what is the best way forward, such open processes are far more positive, more productive than, for example, the Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation (WGEC), whose mandate was explicitly to build a consensus on the future of the Internet governance ecosystem, yet which limited from the outset the number of people who could participate to a small and, therefore necessarily privileged, group. Though the WGEC allowed others to make written contributions initially, it was striking to me, as an observer, how rarely those contributions figured in the discussions in the room, the WGEC’s Chair’s best efforts notwithstanding. The multistakeholder composition of the WGEC in itself was, thus, not sufficient to ensure that all perspectives would be taken into account in the discussion. In addition, the experience of the WGEC shows, it is important to keep processes as open as possible, particularly at moments when consensus is so clearly still elusive.

Second, it is equally important to make a distinction between participation and representation. Representation does not need to be a concern at every point in a multi-stakeholder process. When we are at an early stage of debate, there is great value to have as wide a participation as possible. But once we move into decision-making processes, or once positions of representation and decision making are created and need to filled, the issue of representation, and its legitimacy, obviously become extremely important. Internet governance processes need much stronger checks and balances to ensure this legitimacy.

Such legitimacy can come from a variety of sources. It can, for example, be rooted in one’s participation in one’s broader stakeholder group, in one’s track record of written and oral engagement, or in one’s involvement in a national multistakeholder process that already enjoys wide legitimacy domestically. But whatever its source, ensure the legitimacy of participants in representative processes and positions of multistakeholderism is essential if the legitimacy of those processes and positions, and hence of multistakeholderism, themselves are to be retained.

Third, whatever the process — open or closed, participatory or representative — it is essential to set out the rules of the game at the outset. If the outcomes of both the NETmundial and MPP led to a certain degree of disappointment and discomfort among participants and observers alike, this was largely due to the fact that in both these cases, this was not done clearly enough. It is crucial that we think these things through. For example, are we going to make decisions by rough consensus? If so, what constitutes rough consensus? What is a legitimate rough consensus? Etc. etc. The rules of the game can be adapted from context to context. As multistakeholderism is still very much a work-in-progress, it will likely also take some time for a more or less coherent set of core rules to evolve. But it is important that we start this task now, and that we make it an integral part of every multistakeholder process that we embark on. the formulation of such rules, as well as an evaluation of their effectiveness

Finally, while a close adherence to the above principles in concrete multistakeholder process would contribute significantly to strengthening them, it is essential that sufficient funding is made available to ensure that their inclusiveness, representativeness and accountability is maximised. This issue has been discussed before, and practical proposals to address it have been made as well. The considerable surplus that ICANN is generating consistently could, for example, be fed back into the larger Internet governance community systematically to ensure that genuine multistakeholderism is structurally viable in the long-term. It is time now to take this debate, too, forward in a more structured and systematic way. Without the finances to ensure that all those who need to participate can participate, the legitimacy of global Internet governance processes, no matter how inclusive on paper, will always be suspect.