Multistakeholderism vs. Democracy: My Adventures in “Stakeholderland”

Posted on March 20, 2013


In advanced circles discussing future forms of governance and particularly governance structures in areas impinging on or being impinged upon by the Internet, one of the most widely discussed and promoted is that of Multistakeholderism (MSism).  This is presented as the successful model on which the Internet has been built and thus the model through which the Internet should continue to be managed, and given its success in this area it is a model which is increasingly seen as being attractive and applicable in wider and wider areas including for example, environmental management, sustainable development, climate change adaptation, privacy regulation and the range of seemingly intractable issues with which the modern polity is confronted.

MSism is based on the overall notion that those most impacted by a change or an issue or a circumstance should be involved in the management and governance and ultimately the resolution of that issue or circumstance Thus for example, in the area of Internet governance the stakeholders identified as being appropriate for inclusion in associated decision making are governments, the private sector, the technical and academic community (T/A) and civil society (CS).

So far, so good, and this seems to have worked reasonably well when the issues were concerned with a start-up Internet and largely narrow technical processes and issues.  However, as these things go, and of course, as the Internet has matured technically and increased dramatically in its scope and impact; and as the associated policy issues in such areas as privacy, security, access and others have grown apace in complexity and significance there has been the inevitable trend to extend MSism as a governance model and strategy into these latter additional areas among others.

And this isn’t cream cheese.  The USA Ambassador to the recent World Conference on International Communications  in Dubai where the Internet world was seemingly edging into some sort of global policy Cold War, in his brief statement to the USA’s concluding press conference mentioned MSism 17 times while mentioning things like freedom of expression, open markets, and so on less than 5 times each. At a recent OECD meeting, in which I had the occasion to participate, the senior US spokesman indicated in his remarks that MSism was a necessary framework for the on-going conduct of the OECD’s business at hand. And as of June 2012 the US “NTIA announces the first privacy multistakeholder meeting pursuant to Obama administration privacy blueprint” and so on.

This is a very important emerging trend and one that is taking on increasing importance as a way of facilitating decision making in complex, rapidly evolving, knowledge and technology intensive processes.

So, given this importance and visibility one might expect that MSism was a clearly defined set of concepts with regularized procedures, structures of accountability, norms for internal governance and decision making, rules for transparency — the regular elements of democratic processes.

Well not so much…

Arguably, among the origins of MSism are in the overall technical management of the Internet and its recent powerful emergence into the overall lexicon of democratic governance is through Internet related matters and specifically as an outcome of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) where the concluding document (The Tunis Agenda for the Information Society) mentioned multistakeholder processes/approaches/frameworks etc. some 18 times in among its 122 clauses.

As well, one of the recommendations of the WSIS Summit was that there be a multistakeholder examination of what was called “Enhanced Cooperation” which in UN-speak is terminology for how governments (and others) could structure themselves to proceed in global Internet and related policy areas.  The responsibility for this activity has been assigned within the UN system to the Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD)  and the Chair of this Commission recently invited the WSIS defined “stakeholders”–governments, the private sector, civil society and the technical and academic community to nominate representatives from within their respective stakeholder communities to be selected by the UN to sit on a Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation.

A wee bit of background… For the last several years I’ve become involved with civil society in Internet Governance related areas, mostly articulating a “community informatics”  position i.e. the need to extend access and use of the Internet to marginalized populations and communities. However, in this instance and in consultation with various parties I decided that rather than being concerned with what SHOULD take place with respect to bringing the next 4 billion or so of the world’s citizens onto the Internet, I would be concerned with what structures COULD be put in place to most effectively achieve this.  (This distinction is important as it is one between an intervention or participation which is “values based” and thus which falls directly into the area of civil society whose primary framework is the promotion of actions and activities on and with the Internet as seen primarily through a Human Rights lens;  and an intervention or participation which is knowledge or expertise based such as would be contributed by those participating from within a technical and academic community.) I would look to base my contribution in the latter on my some 20 years professional experience working with marginalized populations around the world and most particularly in consultation with my academic, research and technical community informatics colleagues actively engaged in these activities worldwide on a daily basis.

So, rather than applying to be nominated by the CS stakeholder group for the Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation I decided to put on my “day job” hat and apply to the “academic” component of the T/A stakeholder group–my thinking being that if, of five T/A representatives, four were concerned with the technical “pipes” (connectivity and protocols), perhaps one should be concerned with who the “pipes” were being laid for and what was being carried along those “pipes”.

In this instance the Chair of the CSTD committee had designated a representative of the Internet Society  to be the “focal point”(in fact gatekeeper) for the T/A stakeholder group to gather the nominations and to select five names to forward to the Chair for review and ultimate selection. Asking for, but not receiving the appropriate form and requirements for application I sent along a bio, resume, indication of interest and how I thought I fit into the selection criteria identified–which included things like time availability, experience, how one would represent the T/A community that sort of thing.  In addition, I requested “endorsements” from the Community Informatics community and received a very positive and useful cross section of such endorsements including from a range of Less Developed Countries, academic (including technical) disciplines and so on and so on.

However, my application was clearly met with some consternation within the T/A focal group as I received contacts and encouragements from several sources to withdraw my application and re-submit it through Civil Society.  I respectfully declined those solicitations citing my extensive and continuing work experience in the area of enabling the extension of Internet access and use and particularly how I would look to act as a channel for making available the knowledge and experience of my professional colleagues in this area.

A first formal response from the T/A focal point then indicated that I didn’t fit within the T/A “criteria” which was identified as “the scientists who developed the Internet and the technical organizations/people who run it, and not to social scientists and the like”. Fair enough, but thinking that this was a rather restrictive (to my mind) definition and moreover one that might usefully be evolving as the Internet has grown and matured I asked to be pointed to the specific document and authoritative reference where this definition was presented (as for example by the UN itself).

I received no reply to this request but after a very lengthy delay I was informed that the “nominations” had gone forward and that mine was not recommended. I then asked for two things–an indication of the procedures that had been followed in adjudicating the applicants and the criteria which had been used in making the overall assessments.

I received back this quite astonishing response to my first question “Consultations were led (presumably “held”) and I have also talked to many individuals from Civil Society and the Business community (including their focal points)”.  In other words they, the focal point “chatted with a few of her mates and they decided amongst themselves who they would nominate”. No procedures, no formal assessment, no transparency, no accountability…

And as well I received this intriguing response to the second question concerning definitions  “My interpretation of the “technical and academic community” includes the academics who have contributed to building the Internet”.

Since I (and my colleagues) have devoted much of our working careers to “building the Internet” if one understands by building the Internet something beyond simply wires and protocols i.e. integrating users and developing uses, then it seemed that I and my colleagues would easily fit within that criteria.

I then followed up with a subsequent question asking for an indication of the actual formal procedures which went in to applying the criteria and making the assessments. At this point my previous involvements with Civil Society were evoked as determining conditions i.e. since in the past I had represented CS thus it was implied I could not at a subsequent occasion represent my technical/academic colleagues. Also, at this time the defining criteria for the T/A stakeholder groups was further refined as being “individuals who have technically built the Internet“.  When further pressed on this matter, in a widely circulated email the following and presumably considered and definitive definition was provided: The T/A stakeholder group consists of “the community of organizations and individuals who are involved in the day-to-day operational management of the Internet and who work within this community“.

Okay, so clearly I am not welcome as a member of the T/A community/stakeholder group and presumably none of my academic or research or technical colleagues who aren’t specifically involved in “the day to day technical management and operations of the Internet” aren’t either.  Fair enough, I’ve no interest in going to a party where I’m not invited.

But …What this means I think is that the prevailing and self determined definition of the T/A stakeholder group includes probably no more than 3-400 people in the entire world, all of whom have some professional association with the technical management of the Internet (the alphabet soup of technical Internet governance organizations–ICANN, the Internet Registries and a few others in standards organizations), perhaps at least 80% of whom are from developed countries and at least 80% of those being US based, at least 80% being male (it is probably much higher given the absence of women in these kinds of technical roles) and from sad experience having essentially no knowledge or interest in matters that stretch beyond their narrow highly technical realm.

It further means that the group representing the T/A stakeholder “community” is able to design its own “restrictive covenant” (define who is a member and who is not), exclude whomever it wishes on whatever basis suits it and moreover is not accountable or required to have any degree of transparency in its internal operations, decision making procedures, internal governance structures and so on. Notably, this group functions in an area of considerable and increasing public responsibility and as peers with an equivalent group representing all of the governments of the world, a second group (CS) representing all of the citizens of the world and a third group representing all of the businesses of the world..

Thus MSism in this instance is meant to be a substitute for/replacement of more formal processes of democracy which presumably are seen as being inadequate to deal with these 21st century issues and challenges. It is well to remember, that what is under discussion here would appear to include  fundamental elements in Internet and Information Society governance structures which ultimately will impact and direct the development of the Internet and through this (and likely other ways) impact on the future of us all. To say that the manner of operation of the T/A stakeholder group is an abrogation of fundamental principles of responsible, transparent and accountable democracy; and that it is astonishing and deeply disturbing is hardly sufficient.  Moreover, if we recognize that at least two of the other “stakeholder groups” involved in this process are by all accounts equally flawed as is the T/A one then what we are talking about is a fundamental challenge to what we understand as democratic governance and governing processes.

I have no idea of the degree of development of the governance structures of other multistakeholder processes and how closely they match the deeply flawed operations I have described above.  However, based on my above noted experience; that fact that the multistakeholder experience in Internet Governance is widely quoted as a model to be emulated; and the fact that in the course of the rather extensive online discussion concerning the above within the Internet Governance Caucus itself no theoretical or practical response or alternative experience was usefully provided; I can only conclude that the multistakeholder model and MSism itself may be equally deeply flawed and in no sense is ready or able to take on the massive governance responsibilities in numerous public policy areas which its proponents are attempting to enact.

Certainly there are problems and even major problems with democratic governance in the modern era and these are perhaps being made more and more acute because of the success of the Internet. And certainly the development and operations of the Internet attests to a successful set of inter-organizational, inter-individual processes which are perhaps exemplary in their management and coordination of a highly complex, global system with multiple organizational and institutional involvements and “stakeholders”. Whether or how such a model could be transferred beyond this relatively contained domain is I think something to be discussed, researched, even piloted — certainly it would need to be adapted and re-created to fit specific circumstances — whether that model could become a basic governance framework for the modern world with applications in multiple domains and as a substitute for representative democracy is I think something that should be considered extremely carefully and some specific lessons should be learned from the extremely flawed implementation in what should have been its most directly applicable sphere.