(The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone)
Part I in this series can be read here
The IANA transition is notable for its policy development process –its outcome is already constrained by the US government’s requirements. One could even argue the IANA simply executes naming and numbering policies that have been developed by ICANN, so the transition is not quite a radical overhaul of existing internet governance structures. Nevertheless, the success or failure of this transition bears implications for the process which seeks to achieve it, namely, multistakeholderism (MSM). If ICANN – with its elaborate, complex and “bottom-up” framework – cannot agree on the terms of the IANA transition, several questions would be asked of the multistakeholder model’s capacity to effect policy changes, however incremental. But first, a few caveats. I refer here to global multistakeholderism and not to regional, national or sub-national models (those are not analogous to ICANN). Second, this post is not about some of the more existential, principle-based challenges to MSM that usually pits it against other intergovernmental models. Based on the experience so far of the ICANN community in deliberating the IANA transition, I outline some of the practical concerns that global MSM throws up:
- Governments as stakeholders: Government is the elephant in the ICANN room. It’s easy to dismiss their role as attempting to “take over” the internet but as GAC discussions at ICANN 52 highlight, governments are as divided on the IANA transition outcome as other stakeholders are. GAC also appears to be an insular organisation within the ICANN universe – rare exceptions aside, government representatives are hardly found in other community sessions, for reasons both of time and mandates to speak. The ICANN multistakeholder framework is designed to elicit consensus from within the community of governments, rather than cross-pollinating their views with those of others. Global MSM organisations would find it difficult to effect policy without synergising governments’ views with that of other stakeholders and the GAC’s “least common denominator” response to the IANA transition – as evidenced in the ICANN52 communiqué – reveals the problem of cultivating them as a “separate” community.Admittedly, some governments do not have a stellar record as responsible stakeholders in the internet governance debate. MSM should also be sensitive to the Tunis Agenda’s mandate to encourage participation of all stakeholders “within their respective roles and responsibilities.” Multi-stakeholder models must, however, complicate the internet governance narrative by acknowledging governments that are willing to engage, negotiate, co-opt and be co-opted on substantive concerns. Currently IG processes swing between the cut-and-dried bargains of international politics (e.g. the ITU Plenipot) and open-ended but meandering deliberations (e.g. ICANN). MSM must provide room for smaller, lesser empowered constituents to use their governments (or others’, for that matter) as a negotiating platform. On the other hand, due protection must be afforded to stakeholders to disagree with their governments at international venues within such models. The ICANN model provides for neither — there is no incentive for governments to reach out to domestic and foreign stakeholders, who could potentially move the GAC in unexpected ways through back channels. Where GAC representatives are present, both governments and other stakeholders appear to defend entrenched positions.
- Diversity and institutional culture: An MSM organisation may be normatively desirable but the working of ICANN indicates such models should be wary of an institutional culture that makes it prohibitive for communities on the margin to engage with it. The abysmal number of women on the ICANN Board at any given point of time (currently 4 out of 20) is an oft-quoted statistic, but the staggering lack of representation – by region, gender, age, community, income, disability — is by no means confined to ICANN leadership. The lack of resources of several such communities to participate in online and physical ICANN meetings feeds into this institutional culture. This is not purely a problem of “elite capture” which is a concern for any multi-stakeholder organisation. Regrettably, certain narratives and forms of discourse have become dominant at ICANN at the cost of others, especially around the IANA transition. For instance, Ira Magaziner’s — not an ICANN representative but an influential member of the community — comment this week that “all the voices in the room must be allowed to speak, even the crazies” does not bode well for inclusiveness and alternative proposals that challenge what is kosher within a closely knit community. An MSM organisation that creates silos for communities must also acknowledge and accommodate the deep differences within them.
- Accountability: ICANN is discussing its accountability to the larger community at an inordinately late stage in its 17 year-old existence. One could even argue the imperative of enhancing transparency is now being driven by the IANA transition, since it was not flagged by the NTIA in its original March 2014 announcement. The ICANN Accountability and Transparency Review Track (ATRT) too is a recent creation in the organisation’s timeline, based along an Affirmation of Commitments principally and unilaterally decided by the United States government. While reserving comment on the final recommendations of the Cross-Community Working Group on this subject, the lesson for MSM organisations here is that accountability structures have to be framed at the time of their inception before policy changes can be debated and implemented. It is expected the ICANN Board and the CCWG will work together to enhance the Corporation’s accountability to stakeholders, but this late intervention has exposed the IANA transition to competing and entrenched interests within the organisation.
The third and last post in this series will focus on the Indian role and position on global internet governance given the likelihood of the IANA transition date extending beyond September 2015.