Created in 1998, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is one of the principle organizations tasked with maintaining the technical operability of the global internet (Mueller 2002). A nonprofit corporation based in California, ICANN’s organizational structure involves governments, private corporations, technical experts, nongovernmental organizations, and individual activists in a “multistakeholder” model of policymaking. It actively pursues “bottom-up” policymaking, allowing for interested parties to contribute to the work of creating technical standards and political principles for how the internet should function.At ICANN anyone may theoretically participate (cf. Marlin-Bennett 2001).
Up until October 2016, ICANN was formally under the authority of the US government, but the United States has since relinquished its control, allowing the organization to stand as a private multistakeholder body (The Economist 2016). For any student of International Relations, the case of internet governance strikes a curious note: substantive authority over the internet is in the hands of a “global multistakeholder community” rather than individual states or an intergovernmental body like the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU). What is multistakeholder governance, and what does it mean for the future of global governance?
Multistakeholder principles are particularly evident in but not singular to the domain of internet governance. Appeals to “stakeholder” inclusion in global policymaking characterize several substantive issue areas – sustainable development, climate change, public health, human rights. Though multistakeholder principles increasingly organize these domains, pushing the concept to the point of becoming its own “ism,” there is no singular way in which multistakeholder initiatives and institutions unfold. As studies from the Berkman Center at Harvard University (2015)make clear, the actual functioning of these initiatives and institutions vary widely. Definitions, then, are inevitably contested.
Nonetheless, a working definition from the Internet Governance Forum’s (IGF) Multistakeholder Advisory Group is clarifying:
Multistakeholderism is the study and practice of forms of participatory democracy that allow for all those who have a stake and who have the inclination to participate on equal footing in the deliberation of issues and the design of policy. While they may assign implementation to a single stakeholder group, implementers are accountable to the decision making stakeholders (2014, 25).
What this definition highlights are two things: (1) a specific political subject, the affected party or one who has a stake, and (2) a democratic commitment. While the former institutionalizes openness and accessibility, demands the inclusion of civil society actors, the latter normatively envisions equality to ground actual practices of governing. Thus, mechanisms for successful multistakeholder initiatives not only include open, transparent, and accessible fora but decisions based on “rough consensus” and “balance” between stakeholder groups.
Multistakeholder institutions strive for collaborative policymaking among any interested party, whether that party be a government or individual, a business or nonprofit. In this way, it can most easily be contrasted with multilateral institutions, or those institutions that only involve governments in producing regulatory rules. Thus, multistakeholder governance appears as a challenge to the Westphalian or state-centered world that traditional IR scholars hold dear, but it also pushes scholars of global governance to see how the inclusion of nonstate actors in regulatory regimes is not necessarily resisted by states and intergovernmental regimes but actively accommodated.
A brief history of multistakeholder practices
The IGF is a multistakeholder forum mandated by the UN, and it is one of the most important global institutions for internet policy dialogue.It emerged from the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), a UN-sponsored summit that took place in 2003 and 2005. It was during the first phase of WSIS in Geneva that multistakeholder principles were inscribed in the outcome document:
Governments, as well as private sector, civil society, and the United Nations and other international organizations have an important role and responsibility in the development of the Information Society and, as appropriate, in decision-making processes. Building a people-centered Information Society is a joint effort which requires cooperation and partnership among all stakeholders.
While the WSIS process led to the creation of the IGF, setting the direction of internet governance toward multistakeholder rather than multilateral ends, this was in no way guaranteed. In fact, the inclusion of NGOs in the WSIS process and the subsequent institutionalization of their “important role and responsibility” in internet governance came about because of earlier UN rules regarding NGO participation. At the first preparatory meeting in 2002, for example, some government representatives feared hostile responses from civil society, but by the third meeting, it was established that since WSIS was a UN-organized conference, it should adopt the rules of NGO participation (Mathiason 2008, 108-11).
In fact, the history of multistakeholder governance in the UN system extends at least to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. The outcome document of the Earth Summit, Agenda 21, identifies the role of “major groups” as a key mechanism in working towards sustainable development. Agenda 21 defines participation by “major groups” (e.g. women, youth, indigenous people, NGOs, and others) as a “fundamental prerequisite” of sustainable development, specifically inscribing:
Any policies, definitions or rules affecting access to and participation by non-governmental organizations in the work of United Nations institutions or agencies associated with the implementation of Agenda 21 must apply equally to all major groups (1992, Chapter 23).
Although the specific language of “stakeholder” inclusion is minimal, the overall logic of including affected groups in the making of policy at the UN is clear. Of course, this is just one origin of multistakeholder principles in global governance, but it is an important one, drawing future discussions and actions on sustainable development at the UN along the lines of stakeholder inclusion.The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted in 2015, was the product of two years of stakeholder engagement and dialogue, and the document itself takes stakeholder inclusion and collaboration as the natural way to deal with global problems.
A challenge to power?
As more international institutions come to govern with and through stakeholders, as more individuals and organizations are given access to policymaking, the future of global governance appears democratically-oriented. Even as midcentury visions of world government or a global federation of states have receded (Weiss 2009), the possibilities of instantiating democracy worldwide through participatory and deliberative mechanisms persist. In this regard, multistakeholder governance provides the strongest avenue forward.
However, though democrats should welcome participatory mechanisms, they should also be suspicious of institutional frameworks that promise equality in the end. An important challenge facing multistakeholder initiatives is precisely how “equal footing” among various constituencies, among multiple kinds of stakeholders, can exist. Flattening individuals and groups across the world into “stakeholders” no doubt enables something like institutionalized democracy in the absence of a global citizenry, but it also permits the perverse situation wherein a multinational corporation and a community activist, governmental representatives and indigenous groups, are all ascribed political parity as stakeholders. Indeed, stakeholder dialogue may hide the fact that great imbalances of power (money, time, social position) structure who can participate and how. For instance, while a representative from Verizon and a computer engineer interested in privacy may share the table at ICANN, the Verizon representative has most likely been paid to formulate and defend a position whereas the computer engineer may be working on these issues only in her spare time. Further, stakeholder dialogue may hide the role of powerful governments in advancing their own agenda (Carr 2015).
Thus, while the future of global governance is not dark, the proliferation of multistakeholder initiatives does not mean it is necessarily bright either. Instead, the democratic ethic inflecting international institutions should be understood as a provisional moment that requires civil society actors to not only intensify the demand for participatory mechanisms and procedures but also the demand for structural changes to global distribution of resources. Without transformations in the political-economy of the globe, without the resources to support individual participation and provide checks upon the power of corporations and governments, multistakeholder models of global governance may instead degenerate into global corporatism.
Kavi Joseph Abraham is a doctoral candidate in the Political Science department at Johns
Hopkins University. My research interests lie at the intersection of
international relations and political theory. My dissertation provides a
genealogy of how "multistakeholder" institutions emerged at the
international level, while evaluating their potentials for more
democratic global governance.
You can join the discussion in the comments' section below.
Cover image: Pixabay