Inside the Information Society: The what and why of multistakeholder participation

Author's name: 
David Souter
London [23 January 2017]

Source: David Souter, APC Symposium on Networking Networks in Internet Public Policy Ancona, July 2010Source: David Souter, APC Symposium on Networking Networks in Internet Public Policy Ancona, July 2010Each week David Souter comments on an important issue for APC members and others concerned about the Information Society. This week’s blog post looks at multistakeholder participation.

Twenty years ago, I wrote a report for the Institute for Public Policy Research – a British think tank –called A Stakeholder Approach to Regulation. I argued in it that regulating utilities like telecoms should be about more than just promoting competition: that other public policy objectives mattered, and that regulators should balance the interests of different stakeholder groups when regulating.

That wasn’t mainstream thinking at the time. Since then, the idea that public policy should reflect the interests and views of different stakeholders has become more common – and, in the Internet world, become mainstream.

Multistakeholder participation’s present, one way or another, in many of the institutions, bodies, entities (call them what you will) that ‘govern’ the Internet. And it’s been endorsed in many international declarations about the Internet and wider ICTs – not least the 2005 WSIS outcome document and the 2015 WSIS review.

Many, probably most, people in the ‘Internet community’ cherish multistakeholder processes as a fundamental principle. Even many that opposed them during WSIS now feel obliged to say that they believe in them.

Time to take a look, then, at how they’re working. This week, I’ll say something on the what and why of multistakeholder participation; later, on the complex stakeholder environment; and in the third part of my trilogy, on how they’re working out in practice.

What does ‘multistakeholder’ mean?

Here’s how Wikipedia defines the multistakeholder model: as ‘a governance structure that seeks to bring stakeholders together to participate in the dialogue, decision making, and implementation of solutions to common problems or goals.’

A lot depends here on what is meant by ‘stakeholders’; and on what’s meant by ‘participation’. But I’ll cite two (of many) ways in which this model differs from the ways decisions have usually been made in politics and business (and usually still are):

  • It implies that a variety of different actors with different viewpoints should and shall participate in decision-making processes.
  • And it suggests that the decisions made should reflect some kind of consensus amongst them – that decisions should have general rather than majority consent; be acceptable to (almost) everyone rather than imposed by one stakeholder over others (even if that stakeholder’s an elected government).

Multistakeholderism, I’d suggest, is the belief that such a way of doing things is superior to alternatives – that it’s better, in principle, than government by governments alone. Others, naturally, disagree, some out of democratic principle, some out of suspicion of other stakeholder’s integrity. I’ll come back to this later.

In the international ICT context, ‘multistakeholder’ appoaches – typically involving business, civil society and the Internet professional community – are contrasted often with ‘multilateral’ approaches which grant legitimacy to the national governments of equal sovereign states. Many arguments about the Internet in the United Nations revolve around this contrast.

How did multistakeholder governance come about?

Multistakeholder approaches are not the norm in governance, national or international. So how did they become the norm around the Internet? Here’s my explanation; others will have others.

The Internet began as a collaborative venture to facilitate collaboration between scientific researchers, a community where collaboration between those with different expertise and interests was the norm. Where ‘governance’ was needed – not that often, back then, but for instance in agreeing protocols, in the domain name system – collaboration worked. An Internet ethos was born.

Of course, the Internet today is wholly different: universal and commercial where it was once arcane and academic. Commercial interests and governments soon began to play a bigger role, and they had different interests from its pioneers.

Commercial businesses resist restrictions on commercial freedom. They liked the multistakeholder model because it kept governments (and intergovernmental agencies) at arm’s length.

Governments were more divided, notably at WSIS. Many saw the multistakeholder ethos as an anomaly, and sought authority over the Internet for themselves or intergovernmental agencies like the ITU.

Others (principally Northern) – have preferred multistakeholder approaches because they give more scope for (principally Northern) businesses to innovate and prosper. Civil society organisations, the Internet Society and Internet professionals have mostly (but not all) agreed with that latter viewpoint.

How does it work?

In practice, multistakeholder’s a portmanteau term with many variations. An overview and four examples.

At WSIS and in other international fora, four or five stakeholder groups are usually identified: governments, the private sector, civil society, the Internet professional community, and (sometimes) international organisations (see diagram). Those groups are very broad: too broad, as I commented in a previous post. I’ll say more about this in a couple of weeks’ time.

As for examples.

  • The Internet Engineering Task Force is open, in principle, to anyone’s participation – though in practice ability to participate in technical issues depends on competence in the technicalities concerned, so it’s mostly for experts, many of whom now work in government or business.
  • The Internet Governance Forum’s much more open to non-specialists because it covers public policy as well as technical dimensions of the Internet. Participants in its meetings are barely distinguished by stakeholder status. But its convening body, the Multistakeholder Advisory Group, is formally made up of representatives from different stakeholder groups.
  • ICANN has a complex array of constituencies representing different interests within the complex ecosystem of the Internet – interests which interact with one another in ways that are almost impossible for outsiders to follow adequately.

There are now thousands of other bodies – national, regional, international, sectoral, addressing everything from cybersecurity to sustainable development – with their own variations on the multistakeholder model. Some are innovative. Others look like those that can be found elsewhere, such as public private partnerships. There is, though – and here’s the point – no standard model.

What’s the value?

So what’s the value of multistakeholder participation for the Internet? I’ll cite four reasons people cite, and draw on one of those to ask how its success (or failure) might be judged.

The Internet community has always had a streak of libertarianism – of those who question the legitimacy of government itself, along the lines of John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. There aren’t many full-fledged libertarians in the Internet community today.

There are many more, especially in the technical community and civil society, who are wary of the role of governments because they think they’ll make the wrong decisions – whether on technical issues or on issues such as human rights – because they lack the necessary competence or, in some cases, are malign.

Businesses and the governments that support them, by and large, want to maximise enterprise and innovation. They fear that regulation by governments or intergovernmental bodies will restrict innovation and curtail the commercial profits and social/economic benefits which would otherwise ensue.

The fourth case for multistakeholder participation – and the one I find most interesting – rests on the quality of decision-making. The reason for involving diverse stakeholders in ICT decision-making, it suggests – rather than just governments, elected or unelected – is threefold:

  • It brings expertise, from different quarters, which will lead to better understanding of the issues.
  • It reflects the diverse needs of different groups within society, each of which matters.
  • And it rests upon consensus and consent, which will lead to stronger take-up and have greater impact.

This view does not support multistakeholder participation because it means less government, but because it means better governance. It’s essentially pragmatic, and its success or failure can therefore be measured and assessed. Two tests immediately spring to mind: How representative is it? And how effective is it at making decisions as and when they must be made?

Next week, I’ll summarise the state of play on ICTs and SDGs, following the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development. The week after, I’ll continue this series on multistakeholder cooperation by looking at the complex range of stakeholders.

David Souter is a longstanding associate of APC, and has worked for more than twenty years on the relationship between ICTs and public policy, particularly development, environment, governance (including Internet governance) and rights. David writes a weekly blog for APC, looking at different aspects of the Information Society, development and rights. David’s blog takes a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. It comments on current topics and international meetings, draws attention to new reports and publications, critiques assumptions and suggests alternative perspectives. The views are his own, not APC’s. We hope that they will stimulate discussion, and that others will contribute their ideas in complementary blogs in future. More about David Souter. Follow him on Twitter .
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