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Now Is the Time to Act: The Technical Community Must Engage in Support of Multistakeholderism

Over the next two years, several global dialogues about our shared digital future are taking place—and big changes could be in the cards.

An intensive series of negotiations will see United Nations (UN) Member States weigh in on the future of digital cooperation—and multistakeholderism finds itself under the spotlight. The multistakeholder model allows everyone who has a stake in the internet to meaningfully engage in discussions and decisions about its future on equal footing, but a number of critics are calling for change.

It seems unlikely that UN Member States will invest incredible time and energy into major, multi-year processes to simply rubberstamp the status quo. For years there’s been a growing consensus that change is needed to effectively steward the internet and its infrastructure into 2030 and beyond. As the world adapts to evolving geopolitical and technological realities, improving and strengthening multistakeholderism will need to be a key part of this transformation.

But not all UN Member States share that perspective. Certain proposals put forward in UN contexts would see a weakening of the multistakeholder model, and increased multilateral say in our digital future.

We’re at a critical juncture. Right now, governments have their fingers on a slider between multistakeholderism on the one end, and multilateralism on the other. If the technical community doesn’t get engaged soon, we could find ourselves with a diminished role in global internet governance. Now is the time to get involved.

For decades, critical internet resources like domain names have been governed by the multistakeholder model of internet governance at fora like the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

This approach was formalized in 2005 through the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS)—a process that also sparked the creation of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). Between now and 2025, the UN is taking WSIS back to the drawing board with the WSIS+20 Review.

In 2025, UN Member States will come together to evaluate the impact of the original WSIS outcomes and decide whether the mandate of the IGF will be renewed.

Before that happens, however, there is a key process that the internet’s technical community must engage in.

In September, UN Member States will gather in New York City at a “Summit of the Future” to endorse an intergovernmental agreement called the Pact for the Future. Led by the UN Secretary-General, the Pact for the Future is broad in scope, and aims to reinvigorate multilateral cooperation for a “better tomorrow.”

As part of this initiative, the UN Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Technology is overseeing the development of a Global Digital Compact (GDC)—led by co-facilitators, the Permanent Representatives of Zambia and Sweden—that will be annexed to the Pact for the Future.

In the UN’s words, the GDC will “outline shared principles for an open, free and secure digital future for all.” The GDC—which will also be agreed to at the Summit of the Future—will frame UN Member States’ understanding of global digital cooperation going forward.

Now, navigating UN process isn’t for the faint of heart. There are a lot of moving parts; the processes are opaque.

Following a years-long series of consultations, in February, Member States took part in two informal consultations at the UN to discuss what the GDC should look like. While external stakeholders, including CIRA, had the opportunity to share their views in two accompanying UN-led virtual consultations across February and March, not all stakeholders were granted the chance to speak.

The key point here is that the GDC will have implications for the WSIS+20 Review—and negotiations about its substance are taking place right now.

The co-facilitators presented the GDC zero draft in early April—the first cut of the final product—and at first glance, there’s quite a bit to like. It recognizes both the technical community and multistakeholderism. But digging deeper, some of its provisions may point to the start of a troubling trend. For example, the draft foregrounds multistakeholder “cooperation” instead of “governance.” This may seem like a minor nuance—but the term “multistakeholder cooperation” has little to no historical bearing and suggests a weaker role for non-governmental stakeholders in decision-making.

Now is the time for the technical community to ensure its voices are heard. Even if you missed the stakeholder consultations in February and March, there’s still time to share your views with your ministry of foreign affairs to help shape the text of the GDC. There is also a recently-announced stakeholder consultation taking place on April 24. But the GDC is a multilateral process that will require negotiation with each of the UN’s Member States, so collaborating with your foreign ministry is the best way to influence the outcome.

In addition to UN and government engagement, there are opportunities to engage in support of strengthened multistakeholderism outside of formal UN processes in landmark multistakeholder events like Netmundial+10 and the WSIS+20 High-Level Event. CIRA has also been working with other technical operators like auDA, InternetNZ and Nominet to establish a technical community coalition to help drive engagement in these processes.

Alongside language that forefronts multistakeholder governance, technical operators should advocate that the GDC maintain and strengthen existing structures, such as the Internet Governance Forum, and counter alternative proposals that would centre governments in global digital cooperation at the expense of the technical community and other stakeholder groups.

For example, the GDC zero draft introduces a wide range of multilateral entities to follow up and review the GDC’s commitments, such as a “High-Level Review of the Global Digital Compact.” Bodies like these could undercut the potential for existing multistakeholder fora with institutional memory and stakeholder support, like the IGF, to play a key role in implementation.

If proposals that undercut multistakeholderism and centre multilateralism are adopted in the final GDC and subsequent processes, we could one day find ourselves with reduced influence over critical decisions about the internet’s future. This would mean that the voices of those who play a critical role in the day-to-day operation of the internet would carry less weight in discussions about how the internet can and should work.

To be clear, the same goes for the other stakeholder groups that make up the multistakeholder model alongside governments: civil society, academia and the private sector.

Thankfully, there is still time to shape these processes. As a community, we must each do our part to call for input from all stakeholder groups to be reflected in the outcomes of the GDC and related UN processes. In my view, this is the only real way to steward the enormous potential of the internet.

By Byron Holland, President and CEO of CIRA

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I take the opposite point of view Karl Auerbach  –  Apr 23, 2024 3:09 PM

I consider stakeholderism to be a knife plunged into the heart of democracy.  It is a knife that elevates control by selected special interests and deprecates control by the public.

I have written about this as I have watched organizations, ranging from ICANN to regulatory bodies, become captured as they hand themselves over to, and thus become captured by, organized special interests, all in the name of “stakeholderism”.

Here’s my longer piece on the issue:

Democracy Versus Stakeholderism


Time to move on from stakeholderism Klaus Stoll  –  Apr 24, 2024 1:13 AM

I have to agree with Karl that it is high time to move on stakeholderism to democracy. I had raised this point in a recent CircleId article. See:  https://circleid.com/posts/20230807-human-rights-and-the-digital-domain-primer-part-3

3.5.7 Multi-stakeholderism

Much of the discussion around Internet governance embraces the notion of multi-stakeholder engagement in governance processes.

Given the character of the Internet as a shared global resource created and maintained by the private sector, multi-stakeholderism 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 multi-stakeholderism seems to be unable to adequately address current digital governance challenges. The reasons for the weakness of multi-stakeholderism when it comes to digital governance become obvious when we compare stakeholderism with citizens in a democracy.

Multi-stakeholder 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 as equal with others; they are organized around special interests and topics and not primarily the common good; they are not determined by periodic and genuine elections of all digital citizens, neither are they 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 establishing and maintaining digital domain for citizenship.

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 multi-stakeholderism.

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 multi-stakeholderism 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 multi-stakeholderism 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 multi-stakeholderism 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 multi-stakeholderism. 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.

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