Applying Multistakeholder Approaches: Threshold Debates at the IGF

The multistakeholder approach to governance (or the notion of multistakeholderism) has emerged as an important and much contested idea in the context of Internet governance debates. This year’s edition of the IGF demonstrated clearly that questions as to the meaning, scope and efficacy (or capacity for efficacy) of these terms remain to be settled.

The notion of a multistakeholder approach was introduced into the Internet governance vocabulary in the outcomes of the second round of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS-II). Paragraph 34 of the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society adopted a definition proposed by the Working Group on Internet Governance in its 2005 Report for the term internet governance. That definition runs as follows:

A working definition of Internet governance is the development and application by governments, the private sector and civil society, in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programmes that shape the evolution and use of the Internet.

There is no real definition of the ‘multistakeholder approach’ or of the term ‘MSism’. Nevertheless, Paragraph 34 is understood to embody a multistakeholder approach to governing the Internet. It would appear to suggest a decentralized, inclusive and participatory approach to making policy, formulating rules and to decision making more generally.

But a key concern is with the plasticity of the term. There is not even a broad consensus in practice or the academic literature around the language that would be most appropriate to capture the type of approach that Paragraph 34 describes. So there has even been some discussion around whether it is appropriate to characterize the notion as a ‘structure’ or ‘model’, as a ‘regime’ on or as an ‘–ism’ or ‘principle’ (see here, for e.g.).

Additionally, there are important questions as to how we must work the approach in practice, absent the clarity that a firm definition would have provided.

One set of concerns relates to the role of governments: Does the approach imply equal footing of actors, so that governments are only one of several actors at a round table, and all actors are equal in status? As a concern with implementation, how will this be achieved given the realities of disparate degrees of power? Does the approach suggest (through the use of the language “in their respective roles” in Tunis Agenda’s Paragraph 34) that there is some hierarchy of actors, such that governments continue as the main policy and rule formulating bodies, but that they are under a duty to consult?

One former diplomat argues that the language is unclear because there was no real agreement as to its meaning at the very inception: “Worse, the wording “in their respective roles” was a perfect example of what diplomats usually describe as constructive ambiguity: an agreement on terms that conceal a disagreement on substance.

This “disagreement as to substance” played in fairly visible terms at this edition of the IGF.

Ambassador Benedicto Fonseca Filho of Brazil spoke directly to the question of equal footing:

for government, the basic framework under which we work and we try to be consistent with in everything, at least this is an attempt to try to do in Brazil, is to be consistent with the framework that was established by the Tunis Agenda, which is our basic parameter.  So Tunis Agenda recognizes there are different roles, responsibilities for stakeholders that all of those stakeholders have legitimate concerns and interests. … So that’s does not mean equal role.  Equal role in the context of Tunis Agenda applies specifically to the notion of even enhanced cooperation, in the context referring to public policies, governments should have equal role in designing those. Of course there is an effort in the maximum extent possible. … I think there is a need to maybe have an understanding and, again, I think mutual recognition, mutual respect.

Mr. RS Sharma, Secretary,  Department of Electronics and Information Technology, Ministry of Communications & Information Technology agreed, and seemed also have some concerns with the ‘multistakeholderism’ label:

Essentially everyone has a role to play in this game, and this is not a game which is played at one level.  This is a multilevel situation….  It is something role‑based situation, which is happening.  And therefore, it should continue to happen that way.  …. So essentially I think labeling it as multi‑stakeholder is not really the right way to go about it, but really understanding that each component, what does each component of the whole system requires?  And which are the best parties to deal with that problem?  Essentially, that should be the approach.  And if that approach is recognized and accepted, I think we’ll certainly have a very harmonious way of doing things and we should also then be able to have not only a discussion forum that does not lead us anywhere, but a system which can really contribute toward the decision‑making and finally lead to some conclusions.  That’s our approach.  And that’s, I think, what should be pursued.

The civil society voice at the IGF’s Closing Ceremony presents an interesting, if stark, juxtaposition to Brazil and India’s approach. That speech also demonstrated an unease with the idea of multistakeholderism and with the role of states in the process. Multistakeholderism was a useful device to the degree that it “elevates transnational non-state actors to the same status as governments”. But the multistakeholderism label “misleads”, and results in a problematic framing of the global Internet governance debate. While states, to borrow the WGIG’s language, “in their respective roles” did have a function to perform, they were “the wrong political units for doing global Internet governance”. Multistakeholder processes did implicate state sovereignty and the tensions in the status quo could be addressed by helping elevate present conversation to stage where an independent political community for the Internet, an ‘Internet Nation’, could emerge.

Mr. Sharma, at the same IGF event at which he discussed multi-stakeholder approaches and equal footing, announced an India IGF for November 2014. In theory, the Indian Internet governance process also follows multistakeholder formats. But, given the latent defects in the theory that this post details, its success in practice will depend on, at a minimum, acting with the “mutual recognition” and “mutual respect” that Mr. Sharma endorsed as being necessary. For present, there is little, in the way of empirical information, that allows us to arrive at any conclusions about the success or failure of the multistakeholder approach for Internet governance. Time will have to tell.

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