Why We Need Multistakeholder Internet Governance

Blog 26-02-2024

The landscape of Internet governance has long been shaped by the ongoing discourse surrounding the "multistakeholder approach". Amid complex discussions of what even constitutes the multistakeholder approach, the concept has evolved into a dynamic force, influencing decisions about the Internet's use, operation, and policies. As we stand at a crossroads in the global debate, with widespread concern about the general commitment to multistakeholder Internet governance and its adequacy, it is crucial to provide a comprehensive exploration of the intricacies surrounding this approach, emphasising its historical significance, and addressing current concerns.

In fact, too often lost in many of these discussions are the practical examples that demonstrate why a multistakeholder approach has been critical to the Internet's success and can provide superior outcomes for all Internet governance stakeholders. This brief paper is an attempt to consider what is gained through the development and application of governance processes that provide all stakeholders with a meaningful role and identifies three distinct ways in which such processes are intrinsic to the past and future success of the Internet. 

To do so, reactions and input were collected from a number of CENTR members, and the diverse examples of multistakeholder governance found across the ccTLD ecosystem provided valuable insight that has been reflected in the final report.

Understanding the origins of the Multistakeholder Approach

Openness and transparency were certainly hallmarks of the Internet from very early in its development, setting it apart from competing communication technologies in the 1980s and 1990s. It wasn't until the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) process in the early 2000s, however, that the term "multistakeholder" really entered the Internet governance lexicon. It was clear that most felt that the Internet offered incredible potential for economic and social development. It was also recognised that the Internet's growth and success up to that point, particularly in technical and business terms, had been grounded in open governance processes.

At the same time, while earlier UN processes had been based around a "tripartite" model of stakeholder categories, an innovation coming out of WSIS and employed in the formation of the Internet Governance Forum was to identify the Internet technical community and academia as a distinct stakeholder group. This approach recognises a need, specific to Internet governance, to incorporate the perspective of those most directly responsible for creating and maintaining the technical architecture that underpins the global Internet.

One Multistakeholder Approach, Many Multistakeholder Models

Specific multistakeholder models vary across several dimensions. One such dimension ranges from, at one extreme, models that identify stakeholders only as individuals, to the other extreme of models that strictly identify individuals based on their affiliation with larger stakeholder groups.

The first model is generally employed by technical institutions like the IETF or the RIR communities. It necessarily places the focus on open, inclusive access for individuals. Those individuals can then participate on an equal footing to reach collective decisions. In the latter model, where individuals are grouped by stakeholder identity, those stakeholder groups may be treated differently or have distinct modes of participation.

The other dimension to consider in relation to multistakeholder models is that which extends from purely consultative multistakeholder engagement through to the full and empowered engagement of all (or multiple) stakeholders in a decisional process.

There are robust examples of multistakeholder processes that are decision-making, though, particularly in the technical space - the IETF, the RIR communities, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), and ICANN provide diverse examples of structures in which decisions about policy or standardisation are made by and through the involvement and inclusion of different stakeholders.

In the end, commitment to a multistakeholder approach allows for the flexibility and openness to accommodate an array of distinct multistakeholder models or structures.

Current Tensions and Concerns

Such insights are particularly timely at this moment, when the multistakeholder approach (and the commitment of various actors to multistakeholder Internet governance) is under intense scrutiny and a source of significant concern. An impacting element has been the ongoing efforts of the United Nations' Secretary-General to further develop "digital cooperation" or "digital governance" institutions at the global level, which has generated ongoing tension between a multistakeholder approach and a more multilateral, government-driven approach.

Further complicating this situation is the fast approaching 20-year review of WSIS, a process that will culminate in 2025 and entail a decision on the future mandate of the Internet Governance Forum. With many diplomats, bureaucrats, and UN Member States now strongly (and understandably) focused on the need for a "reinvigorated multilateralism", the WSIS consensus around a multistakeholder approach to Internet governance is particularly fragile. 

Meanwhile, increasing geopolitical tensions have tested governments' commitment to the existing multistakeholder governance processes, and raised the question of whether trust in a multistakeholder ideal can survive in an era of diminished goodwill and outright international hostilities. 

The Value of the Multistakeholder Approach

The paper emphasises three crucial qualities of the multistakeholder approach that have been intrinsic to the Internet's success:

  • Consensus-based Decision-making: the priority on identifying the solutions that work best for all or most participants has been central to the Internet's rapid and widespread adoption, helping to maintain its scalability, flexibility, adaptability, and resilience. Consensus decision-making is a structural necessity in more open, multistakeholder models. It has also been seen to produce the kinds of technology and policy outcomes that underpin the adaptive, robust, and scalable Internet we have today.
  • Broader participation for more robust outcomes: a multistakeholder approach allows for and encourages the active inclusion of more people, organisations, and perspectives in the development and discussion of policies and standards. Ideally, this can lead to more robust and durable outcomes, simply because more issues, concerns, and ideas have been considered and accounted for in the development of policy or standards, including by those people most directly affected by them. This point is well illustrated in the examples provided by CENTR members and their governance models, many of which have been explicitly designed to integrate various stakeholders into governance processes.
  • Keeping Technical Governance Politically Neutral: a multistakeholder approach can help to reduce the risk that Internet governance decisions will be made based solely or primarily on political grounds. As Internet governance discussions and debates have increasingly found their way into legislative chambers, multistakeholder consultative processes have helped to prevent or redirect politically-motivated governance initiatives that would have had serious technical or operational impact in some cases.

Where to From Here?

Even in conflicted and unstable times, though, the importance - often criticality - of the Internet to the daily lives of so many (and the hopes that so many others have for improved connectivity and accessibility) serves to remind us that there is still a need for the multistakeholder approach to collective decision-making.

If there is a recommendation to take from this paper, it is that greater effort be devoted to ensuring that the wide range of successful multistakeholder models, including those found across the ccTLD operators community, be more widely communicated and understood. There will be many opportunities in the coming months and years to remind decision-makers of the value and necessity of the multistakeholder approach.

The commitments made nearly 20 years ago should not be taken for granted and should be open to re-examination and reconsideration. But the fundamentals of a global network of networks, able to scale to connect all humanity, adaptable to an ever-evolving range of applications, and operating across thousands of autonomous networks, remains the same. And the multistakeholder approach remains the key.


Read the full paper here.

Published By Chris Buckridge