If Multistakeholderism Had Prevailed in the Late 19th/Early 20th Century Would Women Have the Vote? (…Would We Still Have Slavery?

Posted on October 23, 2013


A dominant theme/meme of this year’s Internet Governance Forum in Bali, Indonesia is “multistakeholderism”, multistakeholder consultation, multistakeholder decision making, multistakeholder governance….

After discussing the issue of what precisely might be meant by any of these terms a workshop at the IGF devoted to precisely this question concluded — “it depends” — that there is no clear and unambiguous definition, rather the definition is often highly contextual (i.e. it tends to mean whatever the user wants it to mean to support whatever position they happen to be promoting at that particular moment in time…

But speaker after speaker after speaker after speaker extolled the virtues and values of MSism to the point where even the most skeptical began to believe — belief over reason — that perhaps given that all these successful and presumably intelligent people (or their speech writers) thought the idea had merit, so perhaps it does…

An article in Wikipedia devoted to MSism notes that “the Multistakeholder Governance Model is a governance structure which seeks to bring stakeholders together to participate in the dialogue, decision making, and implementation of solutions to common problems or goals. According to Lawrence E. Strickling, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information, and NTIA Administrator, “the multistakeholder process, … involves the full involvement of all stakeholders, consensus-based decision-making and operating in an open, transparent and accountable manner.”[1] A stakeholder refers to an individual, group, or organization that has a direct or indirect interest or stake in a particular organization, these may be businesses, civil society, governments, research institutions, and non-government organizations.”

And an ever thoughtful member of the technical community (John Curran) offers these as principles for MSism:

• Open and Inclusive: Discussions are open to all and structured to encourage the broadest range of relevant inputs from all interested parties. Input provided is valued and heard by all. All documents are freely available online. Processes for public comment and remote participation are provided wherever feasible, and without requirements for participation other than decorum.

• Consensus-based: Discussions allow for all views to be considered and addressed, leading towards common understanding and consensus among participants. Discussions are structured to avoid domination by any community of interest.

• Transparent and Accountable: Processes for discussions and decision- making are documented, publicly available, and followed. Easily accessible records of decisions and the materials used for reaching those decisions are provided. Due process is provided to appeal decisions where processes were not followed.

However in the midst of this kumbayah movement to replace those boring old pre-Internet governance mechanisms (like democracy) I have a couple of comments which are rather to do with MSism overall rather than for example John’s principles which are good as far as they go…

The first is that the MS model in itself is exclusive/exclusionary in that many potential/useful/even necessary voices aren’t included in the process for a variety of reasons–they don’t know about the process, they don’t have the (language/conceptual/technical etc.) skills/confidence/technology to participate, they choose not to participate because they feel that by doing so they are giving legitimacy to a process and its outcomes with which they fundamentally disagree. 

In these instances the “passive” MS model doesn’t work since what is needed is a pro-active engagement which animates/enables/creates the necessary space for the non-participant and thus gives them the means and the motivation to contribute… There are some processes where some people have to be at the table and if they aren’t at the table the process itself has neither legitimacy nor morality.

The second and closely associated hesitation is that the MS model is one that strives for/even requires “consensus”…  The notion of consensus both within the individual stakeholders and among the stakeholders is a fundamental even defining element of MSism.

That being the case there are tremendous incentives towards consensus and equally if not more significant, disincentives against divergence/conflict.  While in some instances consensus is desirable and useful it is not something on which one can build a legitimate decision-making structure/mechanism (or even a valid consultation process) unless one chooses to try to artificially bury/bulldoze dissenting/diverging voices and non-commensurable interests (which in the real world, in many many and not insignificant issues, are necessary…

I think it is important to recognize the difference between “consensus” as in everyone finding a basis of agreement and for example; “brokerage” where there are tradeoffs between conflicting positions; or as another example where there is a simple agreement to disagree (the notion of the “loyal opposition” (and government in waiting)… and where the political democratic process allows time for the possible evolution of minority/divergent positions into dominant/majority ones over time.

I had a very useful discussion yesterday with a leading member of the Technical Community on this issue and what I realized in the course of the discussion is the degree to which the MS model is at its core, its very DNA, a techie’s/engineer’s model with its impatience with complexity and “fuzziness”, it’s belief that there are single simple solutions to very complex problems (and diverse interests), its drive for a single simple outcome when many outcomes have to be seen as iterative, long term and even self-reflexive processes.

I don’t deny the value of the MS model for technical issues and where integrated effectively as an element in democratic structures, but I see extreme danger in an unthinking and uncritical stampede toward MSism in policy areas way way beyond the technical as is so evident here at the IGF.

Rough consensus and running code” as the operational element of MSism would not have allowed for the long term and deeply political, contentious and conflictual processes that overcame child labour, created the public health measures that conquered typhus, allowed for the long term political (and radical) confrontations that gave women the vote,  or ended slavery. Whether MSism can ensure an open, transparent, equitable, rule of law based and human rights protecting Internet for all is to my mind a very very open question and certainly something to be discussed rather than assumed.

When challenged here at the IGF and elsewhere, the proponents of the MS model indicate that of course, MSism is a constituent element of democratic governance…

I’m still waiting for anyone to give a coherent explanation of what that relationship is in a practical sense.