Revisiting ‘roles:’ On the agenda for Brazil

As various groups discuss their ideas for the Brazil Conference on the Future of Internet Governance in April, one issue is rising to the top of the agenda: stakeholder roles. Increasingly, it looks as if the Brazil conference will be used to challenge a definition of multistakeholder governance that assigns different ‘roles’ to state actors and non-state actors.

When the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) got underway in 2002, most people involved in Internet governance (ICANN, IETF, RIRs) had gotten used to a global policy development environment with open meetings, open microphones at public forums, lively email lists, and equal-status participation among all actors. The situation was far from ideal, but at least everyone became acclimated to a fairly open environment.

WSIS brought this culture of openness into a head-on collision with traditional intergovernmental meetings. UN meetings are restricted to representatives of nation-states. Many of the world’s governments were not ready for direct public participation in policymaking, much less any sharing of decision-making power. In the early stages of WSIS, delegates were constantly throwing civil society and business representatives out of the rooms where discussions about them were held, and locking the door in order to preserve the exclusivity of their policy making process.

Most people think that WSIS formally legitimated multistakeholder Internet governance. Yes, there were some moves in that direction. The two outcome documents WSIS produced – the 2003 Geneva Declaration of Principles and the 2005 Tunis Agenda – are full of references to multiple stakeholders. But there was an ugly and unworkable compromise embedded in those documents. Governments crafted a definition of Internet governance that seemed to endorse multistakeholder governance, but actually undermined it by assigning different “roles” to each major stakeholder group. Working in closed rooms without the participation or consent of other actors, governments gave themselves the most important and powerful role, while relegating business and civil society to lesser, subordinate roles. “Policy authority for Internet-related public policy issues” was declared to be the “sovereign right of States.” The private sector was told that it could fiddle with “technical and operational matters” as long as they “do not [have any] impact on international public policy issues.” The role given to civil society was even more dismissive and clueless: it was said to have played “an important role” on Internet matters at the “community level,” and “should continue to play such a role.”

In short, the foundational documents that came out of WSIS were intended to make state actors pre-eminent in the formulation of global Internet policy, and to exclude all others from a direct role in the making of policy.

This situation is ripe for challenge and change. To begin with, the WSIS outcomes do not describe the real world. States do not have exclusive policy making authority in domain names, IP number policy, Internet standards, or interconnection. And since WSIS, the multistakeholder and market-oriented institutions have gotten stronger (although governments’ participation and influence on some of them has increased). Furthermore, anyone familiar with actual policy decisions in the Internet space knows that it is impossible to separate technical and operational matters from public policy matters; the two are intertwined in multiple ways. And they also know that national governments are highly limited, if not irrelevant, in their ability to represent the entire gamut of global stakeholders in the making of policy. So one needs to have not only the active participation, but also the consent, of the many network operators and consumers, both to draw on their expertise and to effectively implement any policy.

Even though the WSIS conception of stakeholder roles fails as a description of the real world, many governments still want to move in that direction. As things stand now, they can draw on the WSIS declarations as part of an attempt to regain the power over communications policy they lost during the rise of the Internet. While authoritarian governments are the most adamant about reasserting state power, the same logic was at work in the leaked European Commission document IGP published two weeks ago.

Most of the problems we currently have in Internet governance can be traced back to this dispute about the roles of different actors. Those who want to retain the classical intergovernmental approach to global governance want to give states the exclusive right to make public policy for the Internet. Those who support the so-called MSM want to break open the exclusivity of states and rely on new global institutions to make policy. Multistakeholder institutions facilitate the direct representation of Internet users and suppliers in the formulation of policy.

It actually understates the importance of this debate to call it a debate between the “multistakeholder model” and the intergovernmental model. It is really an inflection point in the nature of governance institutions. The Internet community is, or has the potential to be, a global polity capable of self-governing through new transnational institutions.  The good thing about the native Internet governance institutions is that they allow the direct participation of individuals qua individuals, quite apart from their nationality or their national government’s policy. This is really a radical challenge to sovereignty and the state system. It locates sovereignty in the individual and creates a global polity through which that popular sovereignty can be exercised. Yet this justification based on popular sovereignty is not widely understood, and is often confused with a defense of the Internet governance status quo. That is why the Brazil Conference needs to take this issue up.

The Brazil Conference has the opportunity to move discussions of governance models forward by challenging the WSIS outcome documents. It provides both states and the Internet community with an opportunity to revisit the discredited and illegitimate conception of stakeholder roles that states foisted on us via the WSIS process a decade ago. Discussions of this issue provide an opportunity to educate state actors and other conservative thinkers about the greater flexibility, efficiency, justice and freedom that could be achieved through improved transnational governance models based on a global polity. The conference can neither re-open nor formally revise the Tunis Agenda, but it can come up with its own statement that reflects a new conception of multistakeholder governance, one that does not artificially consign different categories of actors to specific roles and then seek to imprison them within these roles.


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