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It’s Time for a Better Vision of Internet Governance: From Multistakeholderism to Citizenship

Co-authored by Prof Sam Lanfranco and Klaus Stoll.

We are experiencing a time of global challenges. How to mitigate global warming, fight a global pandemic, and prevent the spread of totalitarianism and war, are just some of the most urgent questions. Digital technologies offer us the tools to unite and face these challenges, instead, we have experienced the deterioration of the Internet into a Splinternet. Is Multistakeholderism, the currently dominant guiding principle of Internet Governance, still up to the task?

Multistakeholderism: Governance for Digital Times?!

There are many good reasons that speak for multistakeholderism. Our citizenship within the framework of a state is fundamental to our wellbeing, security, and prosperity. With digital technologies and increasing globalization, states can no longer serve their citizens based on their national territory alone. Our citizenship no longer takes place solely within the context of the state but also in global cyberspace, where we hope for more opportunities, better protection, and increased prosperity. We have become dual citizens of the literal world and cyberspace.

In Multistakeholderism, as a response to these developments, the state transfers specific functions before performed by its agencies to the private sector, whose actors are deemed better qualified to fulfill these functions. It is argued that when different actors involved in a common public concern come together in a dialogue to develop consensus bases policies, these policies will not only be more just and legitimate, but their implementation will be quicker, easier, and more effective. Today’s large digital corporations have many reasons to claim their superiority in fulfilling some functions of a state. They manage physical and virtual global spaces too big for governments to control. They command economic resources very few states are able to match. Fundamental decisions with global impact are increasingly made by for-profit companies exercising power over code, digital infrastructure, norms, and policies.

Furthermore, multistakeholderism is seen as a way to strengthen democracy, as passive representation is replaced by active participation.

Multistakeholderism vs. Citizenship

Given the character of the Internet as a shared global resource created and maintained by the private sector, multistakeholderism seems an appropriate principle for its governance. A potent manifestation of the belief in multi-stakeholder policy-making processes was the 2016 U.S. Government transition of control of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), manager of key Internet domain name functions, to a global multi-stakeholder community.

However, the reality of current digital policy-making tells another story, as multistakeholderism seems to be unable to adequately address current digital governance challenges. The reasons for the weakness of multistakeholderism when it comes to digital governance become obvious when we compare stakeholderism with citizens in a democracy.

In a democracy, who is a citizen and their rights and responsibilities in well-defined policy-making processes are based on fundamental common human rights values, such as equity, inclusiveness, and transparency. The common goal is to enable the well-being of all. We miss all of this in multistakeholderism.

Stakeholderism – No generally accepted definition of, or right to:Citizenship – Generally accepted definition of, and manifest right to:
Who or what is a stakeholderCitizenship
What constitutes a multistakeholder process and what are its parametersDemocratic processes and their parameters well defined
Right to participation not defined and dependent on other stakeholdersWell defined universal right, (duty), to participation, universal franchise, without interference by other stakeholders
Founded in particular interestsFounded in human rights
Centered on process and outcomesCentered common good
Not all stakeholders seen as equalAll citizens are equal
Participation is dependent on ability, available time and resourcesDuty of policy making process to enable participation of all citizens.
No generally defined right to informationDuty to provide information and transparency,
No fundamental right to inclusionInclusion a fundamental value
Lack of accountability. No generally accepted checks and balances, independent review, or judiciaryAccountable to all. Established and binding checks and balances, independent review, and judiciary

Democracy, and in particular representative democracy, undoubtedly has its shortcomings and can always be improved. Still, at least we have a large body of experiences and standards that give it a strong foundation. Multi-stakeholder processes are defined mainly by processes and those who implement and maintain them. The ambiguities of multistakeholderism often result in policy-making processes that are heavily weighted to achieve the desired outcomes of powerful stakeholders, whilst maintaining the false impression of fairness and legitimacy.

The argument that multi stakeholderism results in quicker, easier and more effective policy-making processes is contradicted by many processes where a minority stakeholder group, powerful or not, uses the ambiguities of the process to prevent or delay unwanted majority consensus decisions.

Cynics might be tempted to see multistakeholderism as an attempt by the private and governmental sectors to wind back the clock on human rights-based citizenship. Reality does not support that point of view. A closer look shows that multistakeholderism has served the governmental and private sectors badly.

The private sector is averse to regulation, so it might look tempting to influence policy making through multistakeholderism. Tempting as it might seem, it is like making a deal with the devil. Whilst a corporation should act ethically, deciding what is ethical is simply not their business. Not only do they lack legitimacy, but without proper “rules of the game”, they can also only lose. Unfair competitive advantages destroy markets and undermine the foundations of capitalism and stifle innovation. Short-term gains can result in long-term irretrievable losses. When corporations are perceived to put their interest over the common good, they lose their most important capital: trust. Trust is one of the most important and valuable assets in the digital age. Digital business is trust business. Lose customers’ trust, and they may never return. If the governments don’t trust businesses, regulations can be stifling or force them out of business.

From Multistakeholderism to Citizenship

At every moment of our lives, we are profiting from the digital dividend, the benefits, the new technologies generate. As digital citizens, we have a special responsibility to ensure that the digital dividend continues to flow but through responsible digital citizenship that observes and extents our fundamental values into cyberspace. Digital technologies invite us and offer us the unique opportunity to fully exercise and express our citizenship through creative solutions for the pressing questions of our time as we seek better and more just economies and societies.

Steps towards digital Citizenship

A Digital Bill of Rights

Citizenship is a constant balancing act between our individual interests and the common good. This balancing act requires values that are common and fundamental to us all.

Governance requires a common set of values that are expressed as a charter and/or constitution on which the respective governance mechanisms are established. This process has so far not occurred around the rights of engagement, the national and global rights and responsibilities of digital residency as digital citizens, and the current stage of Internet governance.

There have been some attempts to establish bills of digital rights, but these efforts often reflect select stakeholder interests and do not start from fundamental principles. A shift from a limited self-interested perspective to a principled common human rights perspective has to take place. This restores the integrity of the Internet ecosystem and regains trust in our residency as digital citizens. The process of creating and adopting a digital bill by the whole of the digital citizenship would result in dialogue and mutual respect of all concerned, and hopefully in a period of healing and the restoration of integrity and trust.

Better Education: A digital Citizenship Curriculum

Digital citizenship includes the duty and obligation to willfully become an engaged digital citizen in the cyberspaces of the Internet ecosystem from the moment one is capable of measured and deliberate action. The right to education should go beyond basic literacy or the career focused goals of STEM (or STEAM) curriculum. It requires awareness and capacity building through progressive learning and understanding of what it means to be a digital citizen.

Creating and implementing a digital citizenship curriculum is a global task that requires the engagement of all levels in all sectors. Mindful of existing cultural expressions, it is an important instrument to determine and teach how to make the existing fundamental human rights effective in cyberspace. Like an educated workforce, educated citizenship benefits civil society, governments, and the private sector.

Better Business: Establishing a Digital Integrity Industry

“Green businesses” thrive by the integrity of their environmental and consumer protection. The new generation of digital corporations must combine the need for literal and digital integrity and environmental protection with consumer protection and corporate social responsibility. Like the “green industry’, a “digital integrity industry” is forming, embracing registries, domain name sellers, platform providers, and online stores. We see just the beginning of a movement for digital rights, integrity, and trust, and it is gaining momentum.

Better Governance: “We the people” of Cyberspace

Governments will have to learn and consider that national citizens are also citizens of a global cyberspace that transcends the sovereign bounds of the nation-state. That is not a new situation for governance. Much of the Internet ecosystem is like the earth’s oceans or atmosphere. It transcends national boundaries. While there will be national Internet governance, there will have to be global agreement on global internet governance. This will most likely be resolved much in the way we have multilateral agreements dealing with oceans and the atmosphere. The role of the state differs a bit in cyberspace. The issue is not only about the shared use of a common resource, but that states will have to enter a working relationship not just with other states and their citizens, but a new global and sovereign “we the people” in the form of the global digital citizenship community.


We need to make conscious moves to extend our citizenship into cyberspace as digital citizenship. The central focus of Internet Governance discussions needs to shift from “who should government” to “what principles should govern the governors, and guide the behavior of all.” The UDHR as our North Star and Southern Cross should guide us to design effective and legitimate digital governance. We need to see fundamental Human Rights not as abstract, aspirational, and idealistic values but as essential tools for economic success, wellbeing, security, and prosperity. There is a pressing need for education and dialogue to build Internet Governance structures and processes, guided in part by the UDHR, to weed out the bad and secure the good. Part of that path would proceed much in the way that the UDHR has focused on human rights at a universal level, as leverage on the behavior of the nation-state, and as guidance for behavior within the social norms and social contract of a literal and virtual ecosystem.

We can start our journey by analyzing how well existing digital governance processes respect the UDHR. For the most part, they fall short, lack the required fundamental integrity, and consequently lack necessary legitimacy and are unsustainable. We can do better. That requires an approach to internet governance based on fundamental principles, enshrining the rights and responsibilities of digital citizenship, and greater citizen engagement.

By Klaus Stoll, Digital Citizen

Klaus has over 30 years’ practical experience in Internet governance and implementing ICTs for development and capacity building globally. He is a regular organizer and speaker at events, advisor to private, governmental and civil society organizations, lecturer, blogger and author of publications centering empowered digital citizenship, digital dignity and integrity.

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