We owe the Internet to its history of multistakeholder participation, which has also enabled the decisions that have shaped the evolution and use of this crucial resource. But how relevant is this governance ‘model’ to the Internet today? On 28 October, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) launched a report aimed at better understanding this question. In this post, LSE alumna Anri van der Spuy,* researcher and author of the report, provides a brief synopsis of the report’s objectives and main findings.

 Multistakeholder participation in Internet governance supports, broadly speaking, the participation of all relevant stakeholders in the development of rules, norms and other governance mechanisms that have a potential impact on the evolution and use of the Internet. Such extensive collaboration has enabled the Internet to benefit from the perspectives and input of a variety of actors relatively devoid of the potentially stifling impact of a single centre of overarching control.

It is a favoured model at and by organizations such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Number (ICANN), the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the Internet Society (ISOC); and has been publicly supported by a multitude of international and multilateral organisations such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), UNESCO, the Council of Europe, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the G8, and the UN General Assembly during its ten-year review of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2015 (see a series of blogs on this review here).

But while many take multistakeholder participation in Internet governance for granted as being inherent to the way in which the Internet was designed, the Internet is very different today than it was when it was first designed. As this critical resource has become more central to societies and economies over time, various stakeholders have started jostling for greater involvement over and in Internet governance. The study emphasizes that this power struggle includes not only governments, but also private sector stakeholders, whose lack of or less transparent participation in multistakeholder fora place strain on the legitimacy and efficiency of multistakeholder initiatives. Some of the ways in which Internet have traditionally been governed thus face strain; risking not only the benefits associated with multistakeholder practice, but also the universality, openness, and freedom of – and on – the Internet.

UNESCO commissioned this study, the 11th edition of UNESCO’s series on Internet Freedom,  to promote a better understanding how multistakeholder participation in Internet governance has evolved in the past decade. The study investigates the theory around multistakeholder participation in Internet governance by reviewing relevant literature published since WSIS’ first phase in 2003; investigating pressing questions such as:

  • is multistakeholder participation a mere fig leaf that allows corporates to avoid accountability, or otherwise protection against the capture of the Internet by governmental actors?
  • who has a legitimate stake in Internet governance?
  • what happens when some stakeholders become or are too dominant or powerful?
  • what is the relationship between multistakeholder and multilateral governance mechanisms?

The study also analyses four case studies to illustrate how multistakeholder approaches to Internet governance are applied in practice in diverse places and on different issues, including:

  • The Marco Civil da Internet, demonstrating how multistakeholder participation resulted in a human rights-related Internet law in Brazil;
  • The Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet), illustrating a case of successful institutionalisation of multistakeholder process in ICT governance and policy development;
  • A constitutional challenge in South Korea, showing how multiple stakeholders collaborated to challenge a ‘real name’ verification law; and
  • The IGF best practice forum on gender, showing how a global multistakeholder community worked together to promote and protect the norm of women’s safe and meaningful access to and use of the Internet.

The study concludes by extracting key values of effective multistakeholder practices, along with a set of recommendations to support the use of multistakeholder mechanisms in Internet governance. The study also contains proposed principles and indicators for supporting multistakeholder participation in the future. This aspect of the report is intended to feed into UNESCO’s ongoing work, led by a multi-country consortium of researchers (including this author, Dr David Souter, formerly a Visiting Senior Fellow in LSE’s Department of Media and Communications, the Association for Progressive Communications, Research ICT Africa, and LIRNEasia), to develop indicators to support an Internet that is universal, or human-rights-based, open, accessible, and governed by multistakeholder participation (otherwise known as UNESCO’s R.O.A.M. principles).

Besides feeding into this ongoing effort to develop indicators to measure Internet Universality, it is hoped that this study will offer stakeholders a better understanding of multistakeholder participation as well as useful methods for tackling the evolving challenges related to the governance of this crucial resource.

 * The author writes here in a personal capacity that does not reflect the views of UNESCO. This post gives the views of the author and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.