Too Many Stakeholders Spoil the Soup

Broadening global governance of the Internet sounds like a reasonable aim, but it’s actually cover for some very undemocratic behavior.

Andrew Cowie/AFP/GettyImages
Andrew Cowie/AFP/GettyImages

Back in December, governments from around the world convened in Dubai to update the treaty that governs the international telecommunications system — but negotiations failed due to concerns that the revised agreement could make Internet companies from Google to Tumblr, and not just traditional telecom companies, subject to its provisions. These international rules would have slowed innovation by bringing the Internet into a system designed for state-run telecom monopolies. Fifty-five governments, including most of the liberal democracies, refused to sign the updated treaty. 

This week there is another meeting happening in Geneva, but this time it is providing an opportunity for governments to exchange views without the pressure of producing a binding agreement. The World Telecommunication/ICT Policy Forum (WTPF) is supposed to come up with a handful of consensus-based opinions that do not have the force of international law. The opinions will be used to build and support each country’s objectives in future treaty negotiations. Of the issues under discussion, the most contentious is the role of government in what is known as the "multi-stakeholder process." 

As words go, "stakeholder" isn’t exactly the scariest. But when it comes to discussions about the future of the global Internet, the word is part of a vague framework that leaves room for some states to pursue their less-than-noble intentions. Two conferences that took place back in 2003 and 2005 (together known as the "World Summit on the Information Society," or WSIS) launched the current debate. A number of governments expressed criticism of the exceptional role that the United States played in administering the Internet’s Domain Name System, which converts human-readable names (like into numeric addresses. The day-to-day administration of the system was (and is) handled by ICANN, a California non-profit corporation, under an agreement with the U.S. Commerce Department. To satisfy critics of this arrangement while simultaneously forestalling the possibility of intergovernmental control of the Internet, the second WSIS conference in Tunis adopted language stating that, "The international management of the Internet should be multilateral, transparent and democratic, with the full involvement of governments, the private sector, civil society and international organizations." Note the four classes of stakeholders. 

Eight years after Tunis, the "multi-stakeholder" model remains the consensus framework for legitimizing Internet institutions. Yet the term has never been defined, and beneath the apparent agreement that the multi-stakeholder model should be supported, there are at least three schools of thought about what that exactly means. 

Authoritarian governments have been quick to remind the world that they are stakeholders, too. Since the Tunis Agenda urges all stakeholders to work together "in their respective roles," the most illiberal countries have simply argued that national governments should have the biggest and most pre-eminent roles, while other stakeholders should have smaller subordinate ones. Russia in particular is aggressively pushing this definition for the role of governments. Its proposed edits to the multi-stakeholder opinion invites member states "to exercise their rights on Internet Governance … at the national level," by which it means that national governments should preempt ICANN. 

In other words, Russia — and its allies like China and Saudi Arabia — are adopting the language of multi-stakeholderism to support something rather like its opposite. The position they are advancing is virtually indistinguishable from one which accords no role to other stakeholders. 

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the U.N. agency responsible for coordinating telephone and satellite policy, also has an interest in questionable interpretations of the model. The rise of the Internet makes the ITU’s traditional telephone portfolio less important. In response, the ITU Secretariat has insisted that the limited, non-voting participation it sometimes affords to private-sector entities makes the ITU a multi-stakeholder institution — one that is therefore in a position to take the lead on Internet governance. In a recent speech in Brussels, Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré said of the draft opinion in question: "This opinion reiterates what I have been saying for some time — that the ITU has been multi-stakeholder from its inception." 

Give the man credit for chutzpah. The draft text of the opinion plainly does not say that. Text that explicitly calls the ITU multi-stakeholder in nature was rejected after being proposed by Brazil during the preparatory process. Brazil has reintroduced the same text for the consideration of the Forum, now with the support of Russia. But a number of countries seem dead-set against any such pronouncement, since the ITU is still primarily an intergovernmental organization. 

Finally, liberal democracies also want to support the multi-stakeholder model, by which they mean roughly the status quo. On the whole, existing Internet institutions work well. To the extent that governments have technical concerns, they can participate in the Internet technical community on an equal footing with private sector engineers. Governments are also welcome at the Internet Governance Forum, a U.N.-sponsored body that hosts meetings for all stakeholders to discuss their issues. ICANN now operates a Governmental Advisory Committee specifically to receive feedback from governments. 

To be sure, the liberal democracies admit, improvements are possible. Most importantly, the technical community needs to be proactive about reaching out to network operators in the developing world. A number of African governments complained during treaty negotiations in December about levels of spam — which is a problem that is both solvable without an ITU-sponsored treaty, through better security practices and filtering, and not solvable with one, since governments have not been very effective at reducing levels of illicit email. If African operators need training or resources to assist with spam abatement, then the broader Internet technical community would be wise to offer such assistance. It supports the existing model of governance if operators are able to solve their problems without the involvement of governments or intergovernmental institutions. 

In light of these three different perspectives on what it means to support multi-stakeholder Internet governance, it is worth reflecting on one fundamental difference between Internet institutions and sovereign governments. In the Internet technical community, authority is earned. Internet institutions have legitimacy because it is freely given by a wide array of stakeholders. For example, the non-governmental Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) maintains and develops the core technical standards that are the sine qua non of the Internet. People are free to disobey the recommendations issued by the IETF, but they usually follow them because it has earned its authority through competence, transparency, and inclusiveness. The system of state sovereignty is at odds with the earned authority of Internet institutions. Governments punish their subjects for failing to comply with their orders, and they do not accept challenges to their territorial authority. Governmental authority is not earned; it is imposed. 

Neither the authoritarian regimes nor the ITU seem genuinely invested in earning the authority they are eager to assert on the Internet. Instead, they are using the vagueness of the nominal consensus on the multi-stakeholder  mo
del as cover to impose authority. 

If multi-stakeholderism is to survive as a concept that is useful in guiding our thinking about Internet governance, then it needs to be understood as a legitimizing principle that is strictly at odds with state sovereignty-based conceptions of legitimacy. Under a true multi-stakeholder system, states can have roles in Internet governance insofar as other stakeholders welcome those roles. But they cannot unilaterally declare authority, or collectively assert it without the consent of the rest of the Internet. Unfortunately, the meaning of multi-stakeholders in Internet governance is likely to remain a point of contention beyond this week’s talks in Geneva.

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