Multistakeholderism for the Powerful and Well Connected: Tyranny for Everyone Else?

Posted on April 27, 2014


(I first wrote this in mid-February as the preparations for the Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance (NetMundial), April 23-24 in São Paulo, Brazil were in mid-development. For various reasons I didn’t publish it at the time but now with the meeting having been completed and with the results/outcomes having been deemed a success by the participating “civil society” individuals/groups, the business community, and others; re-reading I think the below has considerable relevance. I’ll be doing a second blogpost directly reflecting on how the observations presented below should help us frame and understand the NetMundial outcome (document) but also MSism itself.)

Make no mistake, Multistakeholderism (MSism) is now the favoured approach by the powerful to control the Internet (and very likely much beyond this). It has become the preferred alternative to allowing democratic processes to find their way into the realm of Internet Governance.

Building from a background in self-governance of technical (and thus non-political and largely non-conflictual processes) within the technical community as it evolved Internet standards and protocols, MSism has been transformed into the rallying call for those who would ensure that the Internet retains its current veneer of self-governance (governance by those who built and use it) while at the same time masking the deeper processes of consolidation, concentration and deep subversion that ensures that the currently powerful and well-connected maintain and extend their power as the Internet becomes the dominant mode and infrastructure for the digital/information society.

The fundamental problem with MSism which is deliberately obscured by the dominant forces so actively promoting it (and their willing, if sometimes unwitting accolytes in Civil Society and the technical community) is that Internet Governance as with all governance processes where material interests are involved is essentially a process of allocation and distribution and thus a terrain of conflict and ultimately politics as interests collide and the powerful seek to exploit and maintain their dominance over the weak.

I’m just done with a very bruising interaction in the area of Internet Governance and specifically concerning a possible role for the Community Informatics community in the “multistakeholder” governance structure of the NetMundial . I think this experience reveals a very great deal about MSism in practice–how it actually works beyond the gauzy superficiality of most discussions where real issues and real conflicts as in the real world have to be recognized and responded to.

Here is the report I sent to colleagues in this regard:

Community Informatics Colleagues,

I thought I should give all of you an update on how our candidates are faring in finding a way to articulate a Community Informatics (CI) perspective and give voice to CI concerns in the context of current discussions and developments around Global Internet Governance and specifically the up-coming Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance, in Sao Paulo, Brazil sponsored by the President of Brazil along with ICANN.

As you know the Community Informatics (CI) community went through a full and fully transparent Nomination process for positions in the multistakeholder planning process for the Brazil event during the period–Christmas a to New Year’s when most are (and should be) pre-occupied with family. Nevertheless we were able to successfully complete this and come out with a good slate of candidates which have been presented to the “responsible parties” for various of the positions concerning the Brazil event.

I put the term “responsible parties” in quotes because who precisely the responsible parties for organizing the event in Brazil are, has been shifting over time and only just now appears to have been finally determined.

Notably, “1net”, the emergent responsible party for the non-governmental aspects of the event has ill-defined origins(although apparent links to ICANN and others in the Technical Community) and to date no clear, consistent or transparent operational processes or structures on the basis of which they can be held accountable. 

Nevertheless this agency –1net–has taken upon itself the right and responsibility to designate who are to be the formal nominating bodies on behalf of the Brazil event’s identified stakeholder groups (business, academic, and civil society) and thus the sole providers of candidates for the various responsible positions for the Brazil meeting including 1net’s own governance structure–its Steering Committee.

As you know the CI community has participation from a wide and global range of individuals and organizations many of whom would identify as civil society while others of whom would identify as academics.  As a consequence of this we have felt it appropriate that we seek participation in both the academic and the civil society stakeholder groups.

However, without consultation, open discussion, clear rationale or legitimized procedures those acting on behalf of 1net have designated certain specific named organizations as the sole source of nominations for each of the academic and civil society stakeholder groups as well as for 1net’s own Steering Committee.

The organization chosen to “represent” Civil Society, the Civil Society Coordinating Committee (CS: CC) consists of 4 self-nominated and self-selected organizations which quite inappropriately have (mis) represented themselves to 1net (and others) as the sole Civil Society organizations with an interest in Internet Governance matters. The internal operations of certain of these organizations themselves lack transparency and accountability and none of these organizations is currently evidencing any interest in articulating issues of concern to marginalized populations or to challenging the current Internet status quo concerning issues of centralization, economic inequality, or the absence of linguistic or cultural diversity on and through the Internet as has been identified by the CI community in its Declaration:  Internet for the Common Good – Engagement, Empowerment, and Justice for All

Perhaps not surprisingly, this group — the CS: CC have actively rebuffed a range of overtures by the CI community to participate with them in joint representations in these areas.  The reasons for these rebuffs have never been made clear but the complete absence of any members of any of these “civil society” organizations, being among those signing on to the CI Declaration suggests that among the reasons for refusing to include the CI network is that they do not agree with CI’s insistence on addressing the Internet as a source of social and economic inequality in the context of Internet Governance.  We believe that CI has been rebuffed largely because the CS: CC does not want to allow us the opportunity to raise these and associated issues – the traditional concerns of civil society — in the context of the Brazil event preferring, it would appear, to collaborate in having the event steered in the direction of narrow technical matters as would be the preference of the corporate sector stakeholders and the dominant Internet powers.

In the academic area a relatively new and somewhat narrowly focused organization–GigaNet has been granted by 1net the monopoly control over academic appointments. GigaNet it should be pointed out appears exclusively to consist, to paraphrase a leading individual in that organization, of those “who can speak intelligently about ICANN, IAB, IETF, IANA, and so on”.  There thus would appear to be no interest or opportunity for participation from academics and researchers such as those from within the Community Informatics who address the broader areas of Internet impact and associated policy responses, as might be of significance for example, to users and non-users in Developing Countries.

GigaNet it should be noted has not chosen to circulate its call for nominations beyond the closed circle of its own membership.

No justification for 1net’s actions in unilaterally and arbitrarily granting powers of exclusivity and monopoly in relation to selections for positions in an event of the significance of the Brazil meeting to these organizations has yet been forthcoming even after continuing requests.

Where we, the CI community goes from here is unclear.  Those of you who were involved, will remember that something similar to this happened in the course of the WSIS process to the on-going detriment of grassroots ICT users (and non-users) since they were denied the opportunity to give voice to their concerns in the course of the multilateral and multistakeholder deliberations.

We would launch an appeal to these outrageous actions however, since 1net does not seem to have any structure of accountability there is no one to appeal to.

The responsible individual for 1net has indicated thathe will refer our concerns to 1net‘s self-selected “Steering Committee” which, of course for the civil society and academic components consists of (at 1net’s invitation) the self-nominated representatives from CS: CC and GigaNet.

Notably among the other stakeholder groups represented on this Steering Committee to which Inet has assigned CI’s nominations are the business stakeholder group consisting soley of representatives of the largest (US based) Internet corporations!

We do not expect a great deal of support for our concerns to ensure that Internet justice and equity are on the agenda of the Brazil meeting from that quarter or from the process to which Inet has bizarrely assigned a response to our intervention.

However, we are continuing to review our options. We still hope that once the Government of Brazil and its President who, we need hardly remind you, have been directly responsible for ensuring that 10’s of millions of Brazilians now have some access to a measure of social and economic justice, will realize that this form of outrageous discrimination and attempt to silence divergent voices and concerns is taking place in their name.  That being the case we have every hope that they will intervene and correct these quite evident injustices and ensure that the kind of social and economic justice for 10’s of millions of their fellow Brazilians for which they have been directly responsible becomes an equal element in the discussion on Internet principles and policies that they are convening.

All of the above needs to be put in the larger context of an understanding and assessment of MSism as a governance process.  Of course, proponents of MSism will (and have privately to me) argued that MSism should not evaluated based on one example of one process however deeply flawed it might be.  However, as can be seen in other instances I’ve indicated or as has been widely discussed elsewhere, the difficulty and apparently irresolvable flaw in MSism is that it appears to require or only be effective in situations where there is a consensus already available going into the process rather than a consensus as an output of the process. What appears to happen when there is no such input consensus (usually based on some sort of implicit shared value or political positioning) is that the MS process acts in such a way as to ensure the availability of this consensus by refusing to accept/denying legitimacy to any position that dissents from this input consensus.

But of course, real politics and ultimately real democracy is about processes for finding common ground/reconciling differences as between groups where no input consensus is available (except of course agreement on the legitimacy of the (democratic) process itself.  The problem presented by the example I’ve described is that the false consensus is achieved by manipulating the input process in such a way as to deny voice to the dissent.

What in fact went on was that the forces of the status quo consensus as enforced by their collaborators in “civil society” closed the opportunity for a dissenting voice to participate in the discussion. In this instance CS consisted of those deriving some benefit from the existing status quo and sharing a powerful shared history and deep shared (and mutually reinforcing) network connections with the powerful forces framing this process and one has no doubt that the process of MSism which will follow in train will proceed in conflict free manner towards some sort of highly framed minor set of reforms within the existing status quo.  But this set of reforms and the associated MS derived consensus will by definition only be a consensus among the powerful and those with whom they are networked, while those dissenting from this input consensus are denied the opportunity of “legitimate” critique or comment.  To coin a phrase Multistakeholderism for the Powerful and Well-Connected, Tyranny for everyone else.

And have no illusions there are extremely powerful forces and many much beyond the Internet that are pushing with all the wealth and influence that they can muster to substitute MSism for democratic processes in the context of managing the complexities of decision making in modern societies. For those with a bent towards conspiracy it should be noted that in current US articulations concerning Internet Governance the terms referring to “democracy” are never presented whereas “MSism” is presented at every turn. (In the US government’s formal presentation to the Brazil NetMundial meeting MSism was mentioned 12 times and democracy was mentioned once.)

Posted in: Uncategorized