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The practice and craft of multistakeholder governance

Stefaan Verhulst's picture

In a new paper by Stefaan G. Verhulst at Global Partners Digital, Verhulst argues: “In recent years, multistakeholderism has become something of a catchphrase in discussions of Internet governance. This follows decades of attempts to identify a system of governance that would be sufficiently flexible, yet at the same time effective enough to manage the decentralized, non-hierarchical global network that is today used by more than 3 billion people. In the early years of the Internet, the prevailing view was that government should stay out of governance; market forces and self-regulation, it was believed, would suffice to create order and enforce standards of behavior. This view was memorably captured by John Perry Barlow’s 1996 “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” which dramatically announced: “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather”.

However, the shortcomings of this view have become apparent as the Internet has grown in scale and complexity, and as it has increasingly entered the course of everyday life. There is now a growing sense—perhaps even an emerging consensus—that markets and self-policing cannot address some of the important challenges confronting the Internet, including the need to protect privacy, ensure security, and limit fragmentation on a diverse and multi-faceted network. As the number of users has grown, so have calls for the protection of important public and consumer interests.

Out of such realizations and imperatives has emerged a growing interest in multistakeholderism as a model of Internet governance. There is now an ongoing discussion, both theoretical and practical, about the nature, advantages, and disadvantages of such a model. For instance, the Global Commission on Internet Governance stated in their final report “One Internet” issued in June 2016: “…today’s Internet governance landscape is complex and challenging to those who wish to participate. It encompasses debates in the technical, economic, political, social, military, law enforcement and intelligence spheres, and those debates take place in forums that are by turns national, regional and international. If that was not complex enough, there is broad recognition that if it is to be effective and accepted as legitimate, Internet governance should be multi-stakeholder, involving and taking into account the views and needs of governments, the private sector, civil society and technical actors. The term “multi-stakeholder” is overused in the realm of Internet governance, but if used accurately, it can tell us a great deal. The term is used here to mean a model in which affected stakeholders who want to participate in decision making can, yet where no single interest can unilaterally capture control”.

In this paper, we contribute to this ongoing discussion by examining current and actual instances of governance and governance bodies that at least approximate the ideal of multistakeholderism. Part I, below, examines seven institutions and fora that serve as real-world examples of multistakeholder governance on the Internet. In Part II, we assess these examples to present a number of lessons learned and more general reflections that can help us better understand the state of—and prospects for—multistakeholder governance of the Internet today.

The full report, "The Practice and Craft of Multistakeholder Governance" is available trhough Global Partners Digital.

This post originally appeared on the GovLab blog.
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