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Inside the Information Society: Multistakeholder participation, a work in progress

Author's name: 
David Souter
London [13 February 2017]

Rompecabezas: Image by Teodoro S Gruhl in PublicDomainPictures.netRompecabezas: Image by Teodoro S Gruhl in PublicDomainPictures.netEach week David Souter comments on an important issue for APC members and others concerned about the Information Society. This week’s blog post asks what’s happening with multistakeholder participation.

In recent posts I’ve looked at the what and why of multistakeholder participation and the range of stakeholders that ought to be involved. This week I’ll say something about how I think it’s working, and raise five challenges for those who want to make it work.

What’s the point of multistakeholder participation?

For some of its supporters, multistakeholderism’s primarily about a change in governance – diluting the power of governments (elected or otherwise). For others, its first purpose is improving governance – making decision-making processes and the decisions that result better than they otherwise would be.

How might it do this? By adding greater expertise and more diversity into decision-making processes. And by encouraging consensus-building: the outcomes of multistakeholder negotiations, it’s suggested, should have general consent rather than just majority support.

So how’s it working?

Multistakeholder ways of doing ICT policy have come a long way since they were raised during the World Summit on the Information Society in 2003. Then they were controversial. Governments argued at length about whether non-governmental participants should be allowed into the room, let alone be full participants.

Now commitments to multistakeholder principles appear in almost every international agreement on ICTs or the Internet. There may be arguments about their meaning, but the idea of multistakeholderism’s embedded.

There’s a lot of satisfaction among many in the Internet community about the advance of multistakeholder participation. But there are questions too about how it’s working out in practice. I’d say that there are five real challenges it faces.

Five challenges

The first’s an unresolved conundrum: the relationship between multilateral and multistakeholder approaches. Multilateral decision-making takes place between sovereign governments, and it’s the norm in other areas of public policy and global institutions like United Nations bodies.

There’s no agreement among governments or other stakeholders about how the relationship between multilateral and multistakeholder approaches ought to work. The role of ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee maybe offers one approach; consultation and associate membership for non-governmental stakeholders in multilateral agencies (like ITU) maybe another. But we’re nowhere near, yet, establishing effective working relationships between these two modalities. Prolonged disputes over ‘enhanced cooperation’ in Internet governance illustrate this clearly.

Second, complacency. There’s a lot of satisfaction expressed by multistakeholderism’s supporters that it’s become the new normal in governance arrangements for ICTs. But what about its outcomes?

Too many initiatives are being judged on whether they are multistakeholder rather than on whether they’re effective or whether they effectively represent the different communities that need to be involved. The real test should not be who’s allowed into the room; it should be whether the decisions that result are genuinely better than those that would be made by other means.

Third, what’s the reach of multistakeholder participation? Many of the most important decisions that affect the future Information Society aren’t being made in either multilateral or multistakeholder institutions, but in the boardrooms and R&D facilities of global businesses. It’s there, above all, that critical decisions about the development and, by default, the governance of the Internet of Things, of data management, of artificial intelligence, are being made. There’s not a lot of multistakeholder participation in those boardrooms and research centres.

Fourth, who’s actually involved?

In last week’s post, I wrote about the need to disaggregate stakeholder communities. It’s not enough to say ‘the private sector is involved’ if that just means the supply side of the Internet. Private sector users on the demand side of the Internet must also be involved if private sector participation’s to be representative, properly multistakeholder. Similar points can (and should) be made about diversity in the participation of governments, civil society and the technical community.

This is partly about who can afford to take part. Developed country governments and large IT businesses have the money and resources to participate much more extensively than (most) developing country governments and civil society organisations. As a result, some ‘multistakeholder’ bodies are dominated by developed country participants; some look more like public-private partnerships.

It’s partly about the importance of the issues to participants. Decisions taken in ICT fora are hugely important to big IT companies on the supply side of the Internet. They’re not so overwhelmingly important for users, even Internet-dependent users such as banks. Demand side interests aren’t so vested or so represented as those on the supply side, but they’re just as critical to whether the Internet works for all its stakeholders.

And it’s partly about perspectives. There’s an ethos in many multistakeholder institutions which can be both inclusive and exclusive. Yes, they welcome people from diverse stakeholder backgrounds. But that doesn’t mean that they feel welcoming to those who have different views: to those who don’t share their multistakeholder ethos, or are fearful about the Internet’s direction.

The Internet Governance Forum, for example, should be a space in which all views about the Internet can be explored, including those that are sceptical or hostile to the way things are or look as if they’re going. Unless they’re present, there’s a risk we’ll end up with what I’d call multistakeholderism of the like-minded, a comfort zone for those that share particular perspectives on the Internet.

My fifth challenge is the speed with which decisions can be made. Technology, as we all know, is changing very rapidly; new services are constantly developed, posing opportunities for enterprise and challenges in areas such as human rights. By the time governments and multilateral agencies have processed them, technology and services have already changed our world without us having much real say in how.

Open participative processes have proved capable of rapid consensus in technical contexts, like the Internet Engineering Task Force. But multistakeholder processes are much slower to achieve consensus in political contexts where stakeholder views are more complex and more divided. The IANA transition took a good deal of time and huge resources. Multistakeholderism will only improve the quality of decisions if they’re timely.

So what is to be done?

Multistakeholder participation is an important part of what’s made the Internet (to a lesser extent, ICTs in general) successful, but it’s very far from perfect. I’ll suggest five ways in which all stakeholders need to think about it if its value’s to increase.

First, we should remember that its purpose is to improve the quality of governance – better decisions, with general consent, leading to better outcomes. Unless it can deliver that, it will lose credibility.

Second, it should work alongside other decision-making processes. Multistakeholderism is not a universal principle, a substitute for democratic institutions or an alternative to multilateral governance. Some decisions are best taken within organisations and within stakeholder groups; others shared amongst them. The relationship between multilateral and multistakeholder approaches should be harmonious, not competitive.

Third, multistakeholder arrangements need to be appropriate (which means different) in different contexts. Not everything has to follow the WSIS model of five or six stakeholder communities; in fact, that model’s insufficiently diverse in many contexts to be either representative or most appropriate. More attention needs to go into making arrangements fit for purpose rather than fit in their appearance.

Fourth, arrangements should balance inclusiveness and expertise. One objective of multistakeholder participation is ensuring that decisions get made with expertise – but there’s a tension between expert and inclusive decision-making that multistakeholderism hasn’t grasped sufficiently. The best technical ‘solutions’ don’t always match what users want or need. Experts are not always trusted. One of the lessons of 2016 in Europe and North America, at least, is that people don’t feel comfortable with being ruled by experts.

And fifth, I’d say, they must be expeditious and adaptable. If it takes too long to make expert, inclusive, consensual decisions, no matter how good those decisions are, they’ll be irrelevant because time, technology and the Information Society itself will have moved on. First mover advantage matters critically in the ICT sector, to governments and businesses. Decisions will be taken within ministries and boardrooms because they must be taken quickly. If multistakeholder participation’s to maintain momentum, it must find ways of making expert, inclusive, consensual decisions expeditious and adaptable.

Next week: I’ll look at how the participation of developing countries in ICT decision-making has changed (or not) in the fifteen years since the Louder Voices report came out in 2002.

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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