Thinking Clearly About Multistakeholder Internet Governance
18 Pages Posted: 17 Jul 2016
Date Written: November 14, 2013
Efforts to study and practice Internet governance start, virtually without exception, from the premise that the Internet is governed by an innovative, unusual (perhaps unique) ‘multistakeholder’ model. Preserving that model is a primary goal for the broader Internet community as well as for many governments, though not for all. Viewing multistakeholderism as a teleological goal for Internet governance creates several problems. First, multistakeholderism is often elevated as a value in itself rather than as a possible approach to meeting more salient public interest objectives such as preserving Internet interoperability, stability, security, and openness. Second, multistakeholder governance may not be appropriate in every functional area of Internet governance. Internet coordination is not a monolithic practice but rather a multilayered series of tasks of which some are appropriately relegated to the private sector, some the purview of traditional nation-state governance or international treaty negotiations, and some more appropriately multistakeholder. It is a misnomer to speak not only of multistakeholder governance but also of Internet governance as a single thing.
The concept of multistakeholderism can also serve as a proxy for broader political struggles or be deployed as an impediment to the types of Internet coordination necessary to promote conditions of responsible governance. For example, governments with repressive information policies can advocate for top-down and formalized multistakeholderism to gain additional power in areas in which they have traditionally not had jurisdiction. These types of efforts can result in multilateral rather than multistakeholder approaches with non-governmental actors limited from participating in formal deliberations and lacking any meaningful voting power. Alternatively, companies and other actors with vested interests in current governance arrangements can deploy multistakeholderism in a manner either meant to exclude new entrants (whether public or private) with incommensurate interests and values or to preserve incumbent market advantage.
This paper suggests that multistakeholderism should not be viewed as a value in itself applied homogenously to all Internet governance functions. Rather, the appropriate approach to responsible Internet governance requires determining what types of administration are optimal for promoting a balance of interoperability, innovation, free expression and operational stability in any particular functional and political context. Doing so requires conceptual and theoretical tools that have not yet been developed. Accordingly, the paper proceeds in three parts. First, it presents a more granular taxonomy and understanding of Internet governance functions – differentiating between, for example, cybersecurity governance, Internet standards setting, and the policymaking function of private information intermediaries. Second, it performs the same task of disaggregation with respect to multistakeholderism. It presents distinct varieties of multistakeholder Internet governance (which differ according to the varieties of actors involved and the nature of authority relations between them) and sets these arrangements in a broader context of modalities for accomplishing global governance in other issue areas. Such an approach contributes both to the study and practice of Internet governance, and to scholarship in International Relations and global governance.
Keywords: Internet governance, multistakeholder governance, international relations, Internet policy, ICANN, ITU, IETF, cybersecurity, Internet standards, information intermediaries, critical Internet resources
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation