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Multistakeholderism Is Working: Even in Exile

I’m happy to report (mostly) positive feedback on my last article that examined how the multistakeholder model tackled, and tackled well, Phase 1 of the review of all Rights Protection Mechanisms. While bad news may sell more clicks, a little good news from time to time also appears to be welcome. Good news also reminds us of how fortunate we are to have a private sector ICANN with a multistakeholder model of policy development and not just a top-down approach where a set of calcified interests (whether governmental, corporate, bureaucratic, technocratic, or academic) hand down edicts that affect the end-users of the domain name system. As Winston Churchill once famously said:

“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time ...”

While the multistakeholder model is not quite a democracy, since it depends entirely on the hard work of reaching consensus rather than just having “more votes” than the other view’s advocates, the quote is still instructive. Better to try to work it out together than to have decisions made by those who neither fully understand the needs of all of the stakeholders in the industry nor the effects of their decisions on the security, stability, and trustworthiness of the Internet.

Like all organizations, ICANN has encountered new stressors as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. For many, it always seems like much of the problem-solving within the multistakeholder model occurs in the hallways and after hours at in-person ICANN meetings. While Org was uniquely well suited and prepared to deploy all the necessary things for the past several remote meetings, I began thinking a bit about how we are doing as a community “in exile” (the “Exile”) from our usual travel routines. Here are some thoughts:

  • We are finishing things. For example, the RPMs Phase 1 and SubPro PDPs, which were in progress for five+ years each, came to conclusion while the ICANN community was meeting remotely. It would have been reasonable to fear that the longstanding PDPs would peter out as the pandemic continued on and as the teams were unable to see each other in person to work out the hallway solutions. Instead, the PDPs finished substantially in accordance with their updated timeframes, thanks in large part to the diligent efforts of working group members and leaders and a GNSO Council that insisted that calendar commitments be met. Congratulations to the co-chairs of these PDPs and also to Council leadership for holding the line on timing.
  • We are adopting new professional processes. In what was a really encouraging combination of speed and community involvement, Senior Staff drafted, put out for informal public comment, revised, and republished the new Operational Design Phase process (“ODP”). While no one got everything they wanted in the new ODP, the final version does reflect that Org listened to the community. For example, there was significant pushback (ironically) from members of the community to the idea of putting members of the community onto an advisory team during the ODP process. Some believed that it would be redundant, to a certain extent with IRTs and certainly pre-IRTs, and that the risk of team members attempting to take another bite at the policy apple was just too great. One could certainly consider it a sign of a mature multistakeholder community when it is self-aware enough to ask to constrain itself. Congratulations to Göran Marby on getting this done and done well, and congratulations to the multistakeholder community for the perspicacity about ourselves.
  • The ALAC is alive and busy. I’m almost afraid to include this paragraph since it requires me to repeat rumors, but I think it is important to do so. There have always been pernicious whispers around ICANN that allegedly some members of the ALAC participate in the community primarily for travel funding. The Exile has completely dispelled that uncharitable notion as the ALAC membership continues to actively participate in PDPs, implementation, and other work streams. As an example, and without purposefully leaving out anyone, the amazing work done by Justine Chew during the final months of SubPro to ensure protections for underrepresented applicants was comprehensive, persuasive, and well-received. By way of full disclosure, Justine is my friend, but that doesn’t make her terrific work any less laudable (although it might cast some doubt on her choice of friends). Because of the Exile, the community can fully dispense with the ALAC travel club myth.
  • We are starting to really listen to each other. There are groups within the multistakeholder community that are speaking, and truly listening, to each other on important issues, perhaps for the first time in many years. These discussions in Exile include an incredibly helpful, very recent discussion between the CPH and the IPC on DNS abuse issues. At the end of that first conversation, with more to come, both parties left with a better understanding of each other’s point of view. And, they left with some practical common goals for which they can push together. I’m not sure that this conversation would have happened if we were keeping the in-person meetings. If there are no hallways, it looks like the multistakeholder community will make our own virtual hallways. Congratulations to CPH leadership on the thoughtful outreach and to Lori Schulman of INTA, who lead the IPC’s involvement.
  • Org Staff has been Resilient. Org’s terrific Policy Staff has evidenced intense resiliency as they use their remote tools to keep us all connected and moving forward. Although I have no metrics on this to support my perception, it seems to me that Staff is actually helping us accomplish more and more quickly than when we have a “normal” year. That may be due to many factors, the most basic of which may be that we are not all so tired from what can sometimes seem like endless travel. Kudos to David Olive, Mary Wong, and the rest of the Policy Staff.

Far from spelling the doom of the multistakeholder community, remote meetings resulting from the pandemic prove our resiliency. While I do look forward to the ending of our Exile and seeing so many colleagues from across the community at the very next opportunity that is both safe and geographically inclusive, it is good to know that we are capable of continuing our work to ensure a stable, secure, and trustworthy Internet for the generations that follow.

Watch for another article soon about the multistakeholder model and the next round of new gTLDs.

By Paul McGrady, Attorney / Author

Filed Under


Multistakeholderism is just a step on the long road to true digital citizenship Klaus Stoll  –  May 18, 2021 2:26 PM

Dear Paul,

First sentence should read: Thanks for your articles, but allow me to present a more nuanced position. Multistakeholderism has sometimes served us well in the past, often it just enabled BS. This reminds us that it is just a step on the long road to full digital citizenship. Multistakeholder structures as part of digital governance need to fulfill the fundamental requirements for just governance of equality, fairness, independence, impartiality, and competence. Stakeholder groups lack these requirements. Not all stakeholder groups are treated or see themselves equal with others, some are more equal than others. They are organized around special interests and topics and not primarily the common good. They are not determined by periodic and genuine elections by all digital citizens, but are eitherbemployed to represent a positions they are paid for, or somehow manage to make a living from their participation, like not-for profits that sell their positions and insights as teachers, consultants or members of a civil soviety organizations that receives grants. Stakeholderism is simply limited by the stakeholders need to make a living. Stakeholders are often not clearly separated from the institutions they govern over, and/or are in their maintenance dependent on support from the same institutions. Multi stakeholder engagement in digital governance mistakes fulfilling crucial functions for the establishment and maintenance of cyberspace for citizenship.

Digital Governance should see multi-stakeholderism as an intermediate step and strive for the association of digital citizens around common values, and not just around perceived status and group interests. One goal of digital governance should be the establishment of a multi-positional not multi stakeholder polity. To overcome multi-stakeholderim and to ensure the participation of all digital citizens, digital governance should also make extensive use of digital technologies for direct digital citizenship participation.

Thank you! Paul McGrady  –  May 18, 2021 3:22 PM

Klaus, thank you for these thoughts. Let's continue to celebrate what we have while simultaneously always thinking about continuous improvement!

Continuous improvement begins with true Reconciliation William Blackwood  –  May 18, 2021 3:33 PM

There is no mistaking that ICANN and “multistakeholderism” are “working” and such self-exile toils of Hades are of their own free will’s making – i.e. they conscientiously opted in. We the People…= the U.S. Government. The equation is transparently honest. Nonetheless, for those who might rely upon James Carville for paraphrased simple wisdom, “It’s the Public Interest, Stupid.” And it is a certain Stupid who holds the Public Interest in equal contempt to the U.S. Government. For a public-benefit non-profit U.S. company, it is arguable whether Mullah Omar or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi worked more on behalf of the public interest than any ICANN associated imperial wizard has.

Klaus: Very important points you are Greg Thomas  –  May 18, 2021 4:29 PM

Klaus: Very important points you are making here and which makes clear that a normal “rev” process for improvements will be insufficient for enhancing true representative governance and maintaining the stability of the global Internet. The Internet’s security and stability have evolved beyond purely technical attributes and this will only become more so into the future. It is ironic that for all the cheerleading about ICANN and the multistakeholder model, there are precious few who seem to view this governance model beyond a useful platitude since there are many immediately apparent issues of misconduct which are left unaddressed, such as Bylaws violations and which should be low-hanging fruit considering that Bylaws compliance is basic governance 101. Representative governance is a self-evident right that requires fulfilling obligations in order to be maintained. Benjamin Franklin understood this when he answered the woman’s question as he was leaving the Constitutional Convention. She asked if the new United States would be a republic or a monarchy, and Dr. Franklin replied, “a republic, if you can keep it.” He rightly understood that governance of, by, and for the people would devolve over time as people went about their daily lives and special interests would be all too happy to steer governance for them. This article quotes Winston Churchill’s famous quote about democracy being the worst form of government, except for all the other. But multistakeholder governance isn’t synonymous with democracy or even representative governance — not by a country mile. More appropriate would be to paraphrase Sen. Lloyd Bentsen in 1988: I served representative governance. I know representative governance. Representative governance is a friend of mine. ICANN and multistakeholderism, sir, are not representative governance.

Thanks for the article - however I disagree Karl Auerbach  –  May 18, 2021 9:39 PM

I disagree quite strongly with at least two of your points.

1. Stakeholderism has been, and remains, an utter disaster.  It has turned ICANN into regulatory body that is captured by those it purports to regulate.

Here’s a link to a paper I wrote about this nearly two decades ago.  The points I made then are still valid today:

Stakeholderism – The Wrong Road For Internet Governance

The key points are these:

Stakeholderism is the idea that organizations, not people, matter.

Stakeholderism is a regressive idea that is in conflict with the principle of democracy.

Democracy is inclusive, stakeholderism is exclusionary.  In a democratic system nearly every competent living person of sufficient age has an automatic right to participate.  Under stakeholderism participation is limited to those who can demonstrate a “stake”, usually a financial interest.

Stakeholderism represents a return to the conceptions of oligarchy and paternalism that largely left the conception of political governance with the collapse of the colonial empires after the first world war of 1914-­1918.

2. The ALAC is an ineffective bauble, a company union that has survived only through almost two decades of ICANN monetary and staff support.

The ALAC does not come close to the active public constituency that formed organically, without ICANN support, when ICANN had public elections for directors.  That energized community faded away when ICANN threw out elections and replaced them with a Byzantine public structure that was clearly a powerless facade, a dead end, and without sufficient voice or role to confront ICANN’s chosen industrial “stakeholders”.

I helped to resurrect one publicly chosen Director.  However, even that was a pale shadow: when ICANN was formed a promise was made that least a majority of its Board of Directors would be chosen by the public.

Isn't 'multistakeholder governance' just a fancy way Ken Ryan  –  Jun 22, 2021 1:31 PM

Isn’t ‘multistakeholder governance’ just a fancy way to say the inmates are running the asylum?

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