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Multi-Stakeholder Debate at the IGF: Lessons from a Safari

Here at the IGF in Kenya, we’re debating how governments, private sector, and civil society can improve the multi-stakeholder model that’s helped the Internet become such a vital part of life around the world.

Makes me think of another kind of multi-stakeholder model I saw last week on a photo safari in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve. Out there on the savannah, grazing animals have evolved cooperative behaviors to reduce the risk of being overtaken by their natural predators. You can watch gazelle, antelope, zebras and wildebeests grazing the same patch of grass or sipping from the same waterhole, while a few take their turn watching out for cheetahs and lions.

These animals might not like sharing their grazing or drinking resources, especially during the dry season. But you don’t see the zebras kicking the smaller animals away, since that kind of in-fighting would make all of them easier targets for predators. It was truly fascinating to watch how multiple species of animals evolved cooperative behavior when it’s in their shared interest.

It’s just as fascinating (well, not quite) to watch the cooperation among multiple species of Internet stakeholders at meetings of the IGF and ICANN. There we also see cooperation among competitors in Internet policy: the private sector and civil society.

Both private sector and civil society advocates compete for the attention of the public, governments, and technical standards groups. Private sector interests are advanced by ISPs, online services, content publishers, e-commerce platforms. Civil society advocates for human rights, free expression, and online privacy. Understandably, these two sometimes clash over policies for online privacy or protection of copyright and trademarks.

Still, we have cooperated to defend “our” Internet against unilateral control by governments and inter-governmental organizations like the United Nations. Like the animals on Kenya’s savannah, we take turns responding to threats to our multi-stakeholder model.

Now I’m not saying that governments are predators, but in some respects they have similar power over the private sector and civil society: Only governments can block content by law, or imprison people who defy their orders. Like the big cats on Kenya’s savannah, governments will eventually get their “Lion’s share”. The shared interest of business and civil groups is to limit how governments can restrict the Internet innovations of today and tomorrow.

That’s why I was so dismayed by what I heard today at the IGF, when a self-declared consumer advocate accused the private sector of sabotaging the multi-stakeholder model. Jeremy Malcolm of Consumers International presented his new paper, “Arresting the decline of multi-stakeholderism in Internet governance”. Malcolm’s agenda is to get the IGF to oppose legal or technical protections for copyrighted content. I’ve always disagreed with him about that, but we somehow managed to cooperate on opposing government “predation” on internet innovation.

Until now, that is. In a packed room at the IGF, Malcolm accused the business and technical community of “complicity” in blocking his agenda. In his paper, Malcolm says:

“the private sector has no interest in furthering public values that true multi-stakeholderism would promote, ahead of its own power and profits, which could be threatened by further democratizing governance processes.”

My jaw dropped, too. Malcolm is damning the same private sector motivations that produced the most democratizing technologies the world has ever known: Internet search, email, social network services, e-commerce platforms, etc.

Malcolm ended his presentation by exhorting his civil society colleagues to work with business and technical community to protect the multi-stakeholder model. That’s like the Zebra asking the antelope to stand guard after kicking him away from the watering hole. As they say on the African savannah, choose your friends carefully, but be even more careful not to make old friends into new enemies.

By Steve DelBianco, Executive Director at NetChoice

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Re-posting my previous comment Jeremy Malcolm  –  Sep 28, 2011 3:23 PM

I am not sure whether comments are working, as it is more than 24 hours since I posted my response here, and it hasn’t made it here yet.  So I will simply point you towards my full response on my blog.

Beyond what I’ve written there, I’ll reiterate again that I wasn’t intending to denigrate the private sector at large.  The comment that a company’s first priority is to maximise its profit is an economic axiom, hardly a slur.  Other than that, my criticisms were actually very specific and related to particular acts of certain companies that are on the public record.  Read the blog post above, and my full article if you have time, before judging me on this.

Evolution, yes.... Revolution, no McTim  –  Sep 29, 2011 4:14 AM

There are those of us in CS who are keen to see the IGF evolve, but not necessarily make policy recommendations or produce outputs.  Those would not be in the mandate per my reading of the Tunis Agenda.

The expenditure of many millions of USD by the technical community to enhance cooperation should not go un-noticed by the other stakeholder groups.  As I have written elsewhere, the Internet Model that has worked so well for decades should be embraced by the other stakeholders if they want to do real Internet Governance.  Going forward, I would like to see the IGF do many more participatory, interactive capacity building workshops instead of the 5 to 10 talking heads on a panel that is the current workshop model.

Another multi-stakeholder model at the Masai Mara park Colin Sutton  –  Sep 29, 2011 10:30 PM

When you arrive at the park in your own vehicle, you cannot take it into the park, but must hire one of the park’s vehicles. This is to limit the number of vehicles in the park to reduce the crowds around the wild animals.
I leave you to find analogies ....

I'm not getting you... McTim  –  Sep 30, 2011 3:48 AM

Sorry mate, I’m a bit thick headed this morning, can you spell it out for me?

BTW, I drive my own car into Kenyan parks whenever I go on safari.

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