A third way? Proposal for a decentralised, multistakeholder global Internet governance model

A report by
Anja Kovacs


While progress has been made in some areas over the past decade, there are still numerous Internet-related public policy issues that require to be addressed at the global level and that do not have adequate processes involving all stakeholders in place. Many have proposed that all these issues should be made the responsibility of one global body, be it new or existing. The Internet Democracy Project, however, believes that this is not the right way forward. Instead, we propose a decentralised model that builds on various existing processes but is not restricted to it and that ensures all stakeholders are integrally involved. Let us explain.

Introduction #

While progress has been made in some areas over the past decade (for example, with respect to issues of critical Internet resources at ICANN, involving the role of the Affirmation of Commitments (AoC) and the Government Advisory Committee (GAC)), there are still numerous Internet-related public policy issues that require to be addressed at the global level and that do not have adequate processes involving all stakeholders in place.

That this situation was something that would need to be addressed is something that was already recognised in the Tunis Agenda. Paragraph 69 of the Tunis Agenda refers to the need to ensure, through greater cooperation among all stakeholders, that governments carry out on an equal footing their roles and responsibilities in Internet governance.

One aspect of this, which has received greatest attention from governments themselves, is to ensure equality among states in the global governance structure, wherever states play a role. This will likely require structural changes in some Internet governance institutions — in particular the internationalisation of Internet oversight, governments’ main concern at the time the Tunis Agenda was drafted and accepted. It has become increasingly clear, however, that it also might require the addition of new processes and, possibly, institutions, to ensure that the wider range of international Internet-related public policies can be adequately addressed at the global level.

A second, and equally important aspect of paragraph 69 is its emphasis on close cooperation of states with other stakeholders. This is further strengthened by paragraph 70 and 71, which refer to the involvement of a wider range of stakeholders as well. Enhanced cooperation is thus not the domain only of governments.

Unfortunately, over the last three years or so, we have witnessed a strong drive towards a monopolisation of Internet-related public policy making by governments. In some cases, this is asserted both nationally and globally. In other cases, this is mostly evident at the national level, with policies that undermine users’ rights being implemented in a growing number of countries; even in the latter situation, however, this has negative effects for global Internet governance, as it undermines the credibility of the governments in question when they claim to seek to stall greater government control in Internet governance globally.

This gains particular significance as the two camps that are, thus, seen to be emerging broadly align with those countries that already have control over the Internet (or are closely aligned with those that have), on the one hand, and those that do not, on the other. The resulting situation has increasingly posed an important obstacle for the further evolution of multistakeholderism and of enhanced cooperation involving all stakeholders.

A decentralised form of Internet governance #

How to move forward? Current debates around this issue often give the impression that there are only two options where Internet governance arrangements are concerned: the status quo and a more centralised form of governance, the latter often (though not always) imagined as involving greater government control. This is, however, a fallacy. While it is clear that a more inclusive system of Internet governance needs to be developed — and the status quo, thus, is not an option – centralisation is not a good alternative.

This is because it mistakes the Internet for an issue, rather than understanding it as a space. This is important to highlight for two reasons. First, it emphasises that the Internet’s boundaries are different from those in the offline world (neither do they coincide with geographical boundaries nor are they of the same nature), which clearly has implications for the ways in which its governance should be structured. But second, it also makes self-evident the mistake in thinking that one body, and one set of experts, could possibly be responsible for effective policy making on all Internet-related matters. As the Internet is not an issue but a space, high-quality international public policy that addresses the concerns of even the most marginalised of users is unlikely to emerge from a top-down process that is led by and vests decision-making power in one single body, as such a centralised process will be able to accommodate only a very limited number and range of experts (and will likely also frequently consult the same small circle of people).

What we require instead, therefore, is a distributed form of governance, which will ensure that a far wider range of actors and a far more substantive amount of expertise will be drawn on in international Internet public policy making. The solution is not one single global Internet policy making body, in which a small group of actors taking the lead on all international Internet public policy issues, simply because they are of relevance to the Internet’. Rather we require a distributed or networked form of governance, in which networks of actors across stakeholder groups work together on making policies around an issue related to the Internet that falls within the specific domain of expertise of those actors. To help further such efforts and assist in making connections between issues and networks where necessary, one global body could function as a clearing house for all such efforts, but this body should not function as a decision-making body per se.

By formally endorsing and supporting a distributed or networked form of governance (and as we will argue in section four, the seeds of this are already in place), all stakeholders would also be able to already start moving forward in a more concerted fashion on issues that attract less controversy, such as multilingualism and access, while time can be taken to evolve models and solutions acceptable to all stakeholders — including all governments — on more controversial issues, such as cyber security. Seeing the great controversy that proposed one-size-fits-all solutions attract at present, agreement on centralised systems will likely take a long time to reach, leaving other important issues, on which work could progress with far less trouble, hanging in the mean time — with only adverse effects for Internet users.

As the exact nature of the network and the process followed (including the extent of institutionalisation) will be determined at least to some extent by the problem at hand, and details of the form such a system will take obviously require further discussion (we will discuss in section 4 how a beginning can be made). At the very minimum, however, all processes and networks thus initiated should adhere to the following principles:

  • They have participation from all stakeholder groups.

  • They are inclusive, transparent and accountable to the wider Internet governance community, with sufficient and timely notice and background being provided to all stakeholders on modalities, aim/​purpose and significance.

  • They are global in nature. Solutions’ developed in fora with a limited geographical reach do not amount to international Internet public policy making as envisioned by the enhanced cooperation agenda. In order to be global, substantial representation across regions is essential.

  • They are arranged in such a way that none of the stakeholders or regions can determine the outcome without the cooperation of all other stakeholder groups and regions. Note that this will still leave space, for example, for governments to be the main decision makers once a mechanism that all stakeholder groups and regions have agreed on to address a particular issue has been put into place.

It deserves to be pointed out that by requiring that no stakeholder or region can determine the outcome of a process without the cooperation and agreement of others, such arrangements would also ensure that the global character of the Internet is preserved, rather than dissolving in favour of a set of interconnected national or regional networks, each functioning according to their own modalities.

Additional advantages of this system, specifically from the perspective of developing countries #

It is often argued, or implied, that the limited participation of developing country governments and civil society is mainly due to a lack of capacity. While capacity building efforts can indeed be very helpful (and not for developing country actors alone), we believe that this is not the primary reason why such countries do not get involved more closely in Internet governance.

Instead, as illustrated by debates during the WTPF, we believe that one of the main reasons is the fact that Internet governance processes at present are not sufficiently tailored to deal with the priorities of these governments and are not sufficiently clear about their aims, purpose, and intended outcomes. Where faced with limited resources, both governments and civil society from developing countries will prefer to allocate such resources to processes in which there at least seems a reasonable chance of a likely benefit to their own priorities and work.

Though some argue that it will be difficult for developing countries governments and civil society to participate in a more distributed structure of Internet governance due to resource requirements to be able to do so effectively, we therefore believe the reverse is true. A paucity of resources means that developing country representatives from any stakeholder group often are reluctant to tie into existing processes as it is not clear enough to them how participation will benefit their own priorities and work precisely because existing processes tend to address a hotchpotch of issues.

A distributed structure of Internet governance with well-defined aims and purposes will resolve this problem as it will make it much more obvious to developing country actors (as well as others) which processes are worth their time. If the participation of developing countries’ governments and civil society in Internet governance is to be increased, it will only happen by offering them avenues of participation that have immediate and clear value, with this value outweighing any costs (it is notable that other actors that have been notoriously absent from Internet governance processes, such as representatives from small and medium enterprises, might benefit in the same way).

Building blocks of a new Internet governance architecture #

How to start making such a model a reality? There are three existing processes that we believe can be drawn on to do so:

  • the WSIS process (and in particular the WSIS Action Lines)

  • the UN CSTD Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation

  • the Internet Governance Forum

We discuss the role of each in some detail.

The WSIS Process #

As we mentioned in section 2, the seeds for a decentralised democratic global Internet governance infrastructure are already in place. They can be found in the WSIS Action Lines.

At present, two different sets of issues are mixed up in the Action Lines. Their focus is on development issues: questions that for their resolution inevitably rely on collaboration with the wider development community as much as the expertise to resolve them resides there, rather than in the community of Internet governance experts. Examples of such questions include capacity building and the management of e‑waste.

However, also embedded in the Action Lines, and frequently cutting across them, is a second set of questions: issues that are at the core of the Internet governance debate and rely specifically on the expertise of the community of Internet and technology experts to get resolved. Examples are questions around privacy, security and freedom of expression – all of which are among the core global Internet-related public policy issues that enhanced cooperation would need to address and find their place in the WSIS Action Lines already. This should not be surprising, as the resolution of these challenges is not only fundamental to moving forward in Internet governance as such. These challenges are also fundamental to the success of tackling the development challenges.

The WSIS Action Lines, in that sense, already provide an agenda for enhanced cooperation, as well as in indication of the institutions that could facilitate the process to take different challenges towards a resolution. Rather than constituting a new body, we therefore suggest that we build on the earlier work, through a two-fold move.

First, we suggest that the Internet governance issues embedded in the WSIS Action Lines as defined above, many of which cut across the Action Lines, are to the extent possible segregated from the development issues, and grouped under a separate heading. This would give greater prominence and visibility to these issues and thus make it easier to address them. Importantly, it would also make more evident what work needs to be done in Internet governance to support the development agenda. By splitting the two types of issues but keeping them within the WSIS process, the chances that we come to an Internet governance régime that actually supports development and the interests of developing countries and their people, rather than work against them, are thus far greater.

Second, we propose that a coalition consisting of the different UN Agencies that are responsible for the various Action Lines in which the Internet governance issue in question was earlier embedded constitute a multistakeholder process to start taking forward this work. This should be done step-by-step. A multistakeholder group should first specify a more concrete agenda for an issue they are supposed to address. Indeed, while a large range of issues are relevant to international Internet-related public policy, it deserves to be pointed out that they do not all depend in equal measure on policy making at the global level for their resolution or implementation oversight. In light of the mechanism we propose, we therefore suggest that as a preliminary exercise, the exact aspect(s) of each issue that requires global policy making or oversight over implementation is/​are isolated and defined in more detail in the relevant multistakeholder group. Only when this preliminary work is finalised should the multistakeholder group move towards deciding how to take forward this work, and then either start implementing it or delegate it to others.

For example, a multistakeholder issue working on the issue of privacy might specify that it needs to address both the rights of individuals and the protection of states’ communication against intrusion from other states. It could decide that one solution can address both issues or that different modalities are needed. It might agree that some aspects of the solution are better delegated to another body – for example, the negotiation of a treaty to protect individuals’ privacy, if such a treaty is considered desirable, can perhaps best be taken forward in the UN Human Rights Council – while it can start working on other aspects itself, such as the collation of best practices.

Such a model would not only ensure that we build on work already done, it would also ensure that we locate these governance processes in the very UN agencies that have gathered considerable expertise regarding these issues already, while making sure that the input from experts of other stakeholder groups is maximised as well. It also deserves to be noted that while some of these processes might over time be institutionalised, others will only be temporary as the solutions proposed include delegation of work to another body, or may even be final, thus relieving the need for the existence of the body.

The UN CSTD Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation #

Not all issues that require urgent attention, however, are currently embedded in the WSIS Action Lines. Vexing questions around jurisdiction, for example, do not find a home there, nor does the globalisation of ICANN.

We therefore propose that the Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation (WGEC) takes up the task of deciding on the most appropriate ways to address the remaining issues. The WGEC should map these issues, list them in order of priority and explore the various ways in which they could best be taken forward, including by mapping existing process and for a that already work in this area. As before, the isolation and detailed definition of the exact aspects of an issue that require global public policy making should be an intrinsic part of this exercise.

The venues and processes to take forward an issue proposed by the WGEC could take a variety of forms. For example, it can well be imagined that some issues would best be addressed by a successor to the WGEC, set up under the CSTD, which could be tasked to develop work around a specific issue in depth. In other cases, existing processes could, however, be leveraged to reach agreement on how to move forward in a specific area of work, such as the work done by the Internet and Jurisdiction Project on jurisdiction issues, including through a multistakeholder consultation process across continents. Indeed, it is important to remember that multistakeholderism can take many forms. This is another reason why a decentralised model for Internet governance is preferable: it allows to work towards solutions in ways that are most suited to the problem that is being addressed.

The Internet Governance Forum #

While we believe that it would be detrimental for global Internet governance to have one body that leads all efforts at international Internet public policy making, we also believe that it is important to have a venue where ongoing and future processes and their outcomes are presented to and discussed with a wider audience, and where new initiatives can easily find a sounding board.

As it already brings together the widest range of actors in the Internet governance space, the IGF is ideally suited to fulfil this role of clearing house. It would only require that the IGF is restructured to include structured feedback processes on ongoing issue-specific Internet governance processes, so that a wider audience can voice its opinions on proposals as they are being evolved. Some of the proposals of the Working Group on IGF Improvements provide a helpful starting point for thinking on how to channel such feedback in an organised manner at the IGF in practice.

At the same time, having such a role would aid to sharpen the mandate of the IGF itself, and ensure that its contribution to Internet governance would significantly increase as foreseen by the Working Group on IGF Improvements. It would lead to a more specific agenda for the Forum and thus likely a greater perceived relevance among a range of actors.

Accordingly, while a core group of participants will likely to continue to attend the Forum on a yearly basis, a considerable segment of participants will likely shift from year to year, depending on their own expertise and the central issues that are discussed at that time. In the long term, Internet governance will benefit from such an enlarged, even if shifting, Internet governance community, as it will further ensure that it can draw on a great range of expertise.

Conclusion #

In this short paper, we have outlined a decentralised model of Internet governance at the global level and have proposed specific ways to start building this system in practice. We have argued that rather than build new institutions and mechanisms, three existing processes should be drawn on to the most to do so: the WSIS Process, the WGEC and the IGF. Each of these already has some important seeds contained in them that can help such a system to take fruition soon. By developing a global Internet governance system that draws on these processes, we ensure that we build on work already done and draw on the widest range of expertise possible to tackle the difficult problems that face us today. We also allow each problem to be addressed at its own speed, while at the same time ensuring that one urgent issue is not held hostage to the resolution of another urgent issues. By designating a variety of groups and processes to deal with different concerns, the chances that work started in parallel can develop relatively quickly in a productive manner are much higher than when all such issues have to be resolved by one single body. As its past, the future of the Internet is decentralised.