An autocratic country in global multistakeholder Internet governance

A recently published report supported by the Internet Policy Observatory  about Iran’s approach to Internet governance provides insight into how an autocratic government plays a role in Internet policy and operations. And as the report shows, the situation is not all dark and gloomy. Some important points can be concluded from understanding Iran’s approach:

• Actions based on assumptions without evidence do not yield good results
• It is important to understand the structure of the stakeholder groups involved
• Multistakeholder initiatives are possible in autocratic countries

We might be able to extend these conclusions to other autocratic countries and understand their actions better.

Don’t assume…

Demonizing a government and speculating about its motives or actions based on rumors or weak evidence does not give us a realistic picture of how a government perceives Internet governance. Nor does it help us to predict the actions of a government. For example, a few years ago there was an outcry that the Iranian government intended to introduce a new national Intranet, the so called “Halal Internet,” which would control and monitor Iranian domestic Internet usage and prevent citizen’s access to the global Internet. Yet so far, The Halal Internet has not made an appearance. At the same time, the Iranian government has supported the infrastructural development needed to enhance access to global Internet. There have been successful attempts to limit the user’s access to certain content, but Iranian officials have not blocked access to the global Internet and have denied that they are going to do so.

The effect of wrong predictions or predictions that lead to uncertainty can be costly. They can distract the community from the real dangers and issues. They can deter activists from taking the right action at the right time. They can discourage the community from taking initiatives in fear of being stopped.

Which stakeholder group are you talking about?

To create a clearer, more balanced and realistic picture of a country’s approach to Internet governance we should begin by looking closely at the actions of each stakeholder group, and be specific when we criticize or conduct research on each actor. Furthermore, we should highlight the efforts of stakeholder groups that are in line with positive Internet governance objectives.

The concept of a nation-state has led us to expect that all the different organs and agencies of the state strictly follow the same dominant view. Taken simplistically, this might be true, as hardliners will often be able to impede many kinds of liberal activity, but their influence should not be over estimated. Their power and influence is sometimes not as great as we are led to believe.

A more balanced perspective about an autocratic government can give the liberals in the government and in the community a certain leeway. There are red lines that have to be respected, but sometimes these lines are blurred and might not create real problems or are easy to be respected, in that they conform to the norms of society. Not everyone in the government is a hardliner, and not everyone in the community will be prosecuted for the smallest step they may take to participate in some new form of non-state governance.

The international community sometimes ignores different constructions of stakeholder groups. A good example of this is its general inclination to address the government of one country by the country’s official name. A country’s name does not only include its state but also its citizens. We should be specific and indicate which stakeholder group we mean, when we name a country. In autocratic countries (and sometimes in democratic countries) the state is not the full representative of all citizens and groups. Multistakeholder governance might be able to overcome this representation problem by allowing different actors to participate in governance processes. If by ‘Iran’ we only mean the apparatus of government, we should be specific about which parts of government and which agencies we are talking about. If we take this approach, then we can understand better where the hardliners are and where change can happen. We can also identify and locate actors other than the government. It might be then possible to imagine a multistakeholder governance approach, or just a multistakeholder debate happening in an autocratic country.

Moreover, by being specific about the agencies and stakeholder groups, we can see that some Iranian agencies directly or indirectly involved with Internet governance do actually recognize the multistakeholder governance model. As the report on Iran’s Internet governance indicates, they send representatives to different Internet governance multistakeholder venues, such as ICANN, IGF and WSIS. They have come a long way since WSIS in 2005 in understanding the model and taking part in it.

Multistakeholder initiatives in autocratic countries

The assumption that only with a change in the whole government we can have multistakeholder debates might be wrong. When the Persian IGF was convened in 2013, there were rumors suggesting that it was only permitted due to the change in the government. This was a false and superficial assumption. The plan to convene the Persian IGF was made at grass roots level through the participation of individuals. The government at that time had no role in establishing the local IGF, but also did not try to stop the initiative.

During the process, the representative of the Ministry of Telecommunication and Information technology, from the Information Technology Organization of Iran, even became more active and proposed that internal conflicts about the structure of Persian IGF should be resolved in multistakeholder manner. This was a great step forward for the Information Technology Organization of Iran. Although Persian IGF has not yet been able to convene successful meetings, the government is not the only stakeholder group responsible for this failure or for its initial success. Other stakeholder groups, such as the private sector and technical community, also had a role in its inception and in its failure.

To conclude, the report on Iran tells us that there should be a change in the approach of the Internet community when reporting and working with countries with autocratic governments. Civil society and activist groups need to pay more attention to the structure of different stakeholder groups, their representatives and the organizations that are involved.