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Each week David Souter comments on an important issue for APC members and others concerned about the Information Society. This week’s blog post asks who are the stakeholders in multistakeholder participation.

Two weeks ago I wrote about the what and why of multistakeholder participation – which has been one of the main themes of discussion about Internet governance this last decade.

The point of multistakeholder participation, I argued, is to improve the quality of governance. It can do this in three ways:

  • 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.

Better governance, therefore, not less government. Whether it fulfils those goals, though, depends on which stakeholders participate, and how representative they are. So what’s the situation where stakeholder engagement is concerned?

The WSIS model of stakeholder participation

As so often with Internet governance, we head for definitions to the Tunis Agenda, with which WSIS, the World Summit on the Information Society, closed in 2005.

It lit on five stakeholder groups to which (its para. 35) it allocated different roles – states (governments), the private sector, civil society, intergovernmental organisations (IGOs like the ITU) and international organisations (with more diverse participants than IGOs, like ICANN and the Internet Engineering Task Force). It also ‘recognise(d) the valuable contribution by the academic and technical communities within those stakeholder groups.’

In post-WSIS institutions, like the IGF and the Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation, the academic and technical community has usually been treated as a separate stakeholder group.

In some Internet decision-making bodies, particularly those within the UN system like the Internet Governance Forum’s Multistakeholder Advisory Group, a careful balance is maintained between these different groupings (sometimes with more weight given to governments). In others, like the IGF itself, multistakeholder participation means that anyone is welcome: these groups are more a way of monitoring who’s taking part .

Is this model adequate?

So is this model adequate? In 2005, enthusiasts saw it as a breakthrough in bringing expertise, diversity and consensus-building – and in weakening the power of governments (democratic or authoritarian) over decision-making. Others saw the latter as a problem. But is the WSIS model really adequate in representing stakeholder opinions?

One thing it’s done is to obscure diversities – and conflicts of interest – within stakeholder groups. You might compare the five/six categories here with the world’s continents. Yes, there are common characteristics/challenges/priorities across, say, Europe or Africa – but there are also huge differences between, say, Ireland and Ukraine, or Egypt and South Africa. So it is, for example, within the private sector and within civil society.

Disaggregating stakeholder groups

None of WSIS’ stakeholder groups is simple. Each is diverse and includes stakeholders with very different characteristics, perspectives and priorities. I looked at these in detail in frameworks for understanding national Internet governance environments that I worked on for APC and for the Internet Society several years ago. The detailed diagrams in those frameworks – that above is from the work for APC – show how complex and diverse these groups can be.

Take states/governments, for example. The governments of countries with powerful economic interests in the Internet – the US, China, the European Union – obviously have different Internet priorities from least developed countries with limited infrastructure and low Internet participation rates. So do those of developed and developing countries. And, within governments, ministries and agencies that are concerned with the ICT sector have different priorities from those that want to use ICTs to deliver public services or are concerned with national security.

Sure, there are common interests among governments collectively – but, go to any UN negotiation on the Internet, and it’s the differences between governments, rather than commonalities, that are most apparent.

Or take the private sector. Businesses on the supply side of the Internet – which provide infrastructure, access or services – have very different interests from those on the demand side – which use those services. Global corporations like Google and Uber have very different interests from SMEs. Some enterprises benefit enormously from Internet, while others are seeing their business models disrupted or destroyed by it. All of these – losers as well as winners – have an interest in its development. All of them deserve a hearing.

And what about individual users? Many Internet players – governments, businesses, civil society organisations, Internet technical bodies – claim to represent their interests, but they do so through their own perspectives, rarely through opinion research. Users, in practice, have two different, sometimes competing interests in the Internet – as consumers (concerned with cheap, abundant bandwidth for their own purposes) and as citizens (concerned with how the Internet’s affecting their societies).

Is this diversity adequately reflected in multistakeholder participation?

Obviously the answer’s no. As things stand, some types of stakeholder within each grouping are much better represented than are others. Developed country governments play more part than those from developing countries. ICT ministries participate rather than health or education ministries. Supply-side businesses are more involved than demand-side businesses. The technical community more than faith groups or trades unions.

Larger and more powerful players – whether governments, businesses, think tanks or associations – have money, resources and expertise to spread across many different multistakeholder bodies in a way that can’t be matched by smaller counterparts, less powerful competitors or customers.

This imbalance can’t be resolved by turning WSIS’ five or six stakeholder groups into caucuses that agree common positions. The whole point of multistakeholder participation is that it reflects diversity and brings the expertise and interests of diverse interests into the decision-making process, rather than forcing people to adopt majority positions that don’t suit them.

If multistakeholder participation’s to facilitate expertise, diversity and consensus-building, it needs to reflect the differences within stakeholder groups as well as differences between them.

What about cross-cutting characteristics?

There’s a second reason why we need to think outside the WSIS box where multistakeholder participation is concerned: because WSIS’ stakeholder groups are not the only way in which stakeholder interests are divided. Focusing too closely on them means that other ways of disaggregating stakeholders, which cut across the WSIS groups, get less attention. I’ll mention three.

  • The most obvious is developmental status. Take countries such as LDCs or small island states. There are powerful common interests amongst all stakeholders within them – in the way infrastructure and services are delivered, the impact which the Internet has on their economies and societies, and the degree of influence their voices have in international decision-making. The relationship between national and international jurisdictions isn’t just a concern for governments, but a concern of whole societies. All stakeholders in LDCs share perspectives which differ from those of stakeholders from highly industrialised societies.
  • A second – and perhaps related – cross-cut concerns perspectives on the overall direction of the Internet. Many, across all stakeholder groups (and including many, particularly Northern, governments) seek a free hand for innovation, with minimal government intervention. Others are more anxious that the Internet should serve established social, economic or political objectives, with priority for goals determined nationally. Some – and by no means only governments – want to see governance of the Internet more closely resemble the governance of other public policy issues, with more authority for governments and intergovernmental bodies.
  • The third set of distinctions that I’d cite is more thematic. Stakeholders from all WSIS stakeholder groups see particular cross-cutting issues and outcomes as more than the stakeholder identities they’re given. For them, the critical distinctions are their different perspectives on economic or environmental impact, on human rights or social welfare, on sustainable development or on security. These cross-cutting priorities can be undermined by an emphasis on representation which is driven by the WSIS categories.

Multistakeholderism is not enough

My point here is not that the WSIS stakeholder groups are inappropriate. On the contrary, they’ve made a lot of sense. My point is that they’re insufficient. They’re insufficiently disaggregated. And they give too much weight to one particular way of dividing interests and expertise, too little to others that are equally important.

Next week, I’ll end this series of posts on multistakeholder participation with some thoughts on the challenges of making multistakeholderism work.

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 .