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What Defines a Stakeholder in Internet Governance? (Netmundial+10 Special)

What defines a stakeholder in Internet governance? Is it a professional occupation, an ideology, or a specific methodology? One of the key themes emerging in the Netmundial+10 event has been that of stakeholder involvement, participation and representation in different IG mechanisms. The numeric increase in contributors to these processes since the original Netmundial is palpable. However, questions remain about the definition of a stakeholder and the premises under which these actors should engage in policy work together.

The WGIG’s 2005 definition that stakeholders should participate in processes “in their respective roles” has been the reference utilized in most IG initiatives and materials since. However, almost 20 years later, roles have become murkier, and most involved actors wear a multitude of hats that would place them in different stakeholder groups provided that slightly different narratives were presented. These roles may reflect artificial constructs, shaped more by what the actor wishes to present than by any innate quality that individualizes their position.

The five stakeholder groups represented at Netmundial+10 are, alphabetically: academia, civil society, government, private sector, and technical community. In other fora, academia is often bundled with civil society, and the UN has even called for the technical community to be folded into civil society. Supposing we account for all five of these groups, it is quite common for actors to float between these different spheres, with possibly only government actors having more of a stable identity over time.

Consideration needs to be given to these matters, as in several processes, stakeholders are divided in silos upfront, being then asked to come up with answers to questions amongst their peers first. After internal consensus is reached, potentially at great political cost, a handful of leadership figures from the different stakeholder groups are asked to bring these perspectives together and fight each other for broader consensus within the boundaries of these pre-established decisions.

Reaching consensus under these conditions inevitably means disregarding part of the input of one’s stakeholders, and yet these figures are asked to come to a single final opinion and still fully represent their groups. The question that should arise at this point is whether that is an ideal working method. Shouldn’t stakeholders, by default, be forced to work together from the start of any process so that issues are flagged early on, and constraints are presented to their broader stakeholder groups in a way that makes clear what is achievable?

This method can have few outcomes other than creating conflict between stakeholders and within stakeholder groups themselves. It’s also a key reason why many IG multistakeholder processes suffer from constant slowing down. These challenges cannot be overlooked. Better working methods are available and are sometimes already practiced, so why do many systems cling to a fundamentally flawed concept that might have worked in the past, but show all signs of not being viable when relating to the much-expanded scope and impact of current issues?

A key consideration emerging from this evaluation is the need to view stakeholder labels as less significant than before. Today, these groupings represent sets of ideas more than occupations. Continuing to pretend that labels like “private sector” denote a single idea perpetuates the traps that have hindered the IG community for years. It might be more useful to think of the community as divided into government and non-government groups, recognizing that within these groups, divergent opinions arise from differences in political views, experiences, goals, and clients, rather than from stated professions.

The world has become more complex, and multistakeholder Internet Governance needs to follow.

By Mark Datysgeld, GNSO Councilor at ICANN

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