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Multistakeholderism: A distributed approach to the Internet Governance

The words “Multistakeholder” and “Multistakeholderism” can’t be found in famous dictionaries like Webster or Oxford and it means that these concepts and their usage don’t have a long history although the theoretical discussion around the general concept goes back to 1980s. Let’s take a look at the most well known definitions taken from Wikipedia:

“The multistakeholder governance model, sometimes known as a multistakeholder initiative (MSI), is a governance structure that seeks to bring stakeholders together to participate in the dialogue, decision making, and implementation of solutions to common problems or goals.”

A simple search on Google implies that the usage of this word doesn’t go back to later than 2005 where, in fact, the concept was originally taken from the words found in paragraph 34 of the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society:

“34. A working definition of Internet governance is the development and application by governments, the private sector and civil society, in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programmes that shape the evolution and use of the Internet.”

Whilst the age of this concept is no older than 10 years, there are more than 279,000 entries about it according to Google search engine and it shows the popularity of it among researchers who are working in the field of IG. But why this “Multistakeholderism” is that much popular and important among all Internet Governance regimes? Answering this question requires to look back at the nature of Internet and key role players in it. Internet is a set of technologies that is invented by scientists and have been widely used by all human beings during the recent years, these human beings form the society and the civil society has been always involved in interactions with non-governmental and governmental organizations. Latter shows that there are different groups who have impact on the Internet and vice versa, so decision and policy making around Internet, which we call Internet Governance, can’t be done without participation of these groups.

Two examples of Internet related organizations who have applied this model are ICANN and IETF which both are among the big organizations and using this model by them proves that the MSI is worth studying and working on more and more.

There are two types of multistakeholderism: Representative and Open. In the first type there are limited number of seats distributed to representative of particular stakeholders and in the second type it’s open to anyone who wants to participate. A quick look at ICANN’s fellowship program and their other volunteer-based activities clearly shows the difference between these two types of multistakeholderism.

Although the “MSI” or Multistakeholder Initiative Model has been generally accepted as the ideal model for Internet Governance, there are also some concerns, criticisms and debates around it as well. In the remaining of this article I try to point out to some of these discussions and mention some pros and cons in order to give a better understanding of what it really is.

In a recent study published by the Austrian Internet scholar, Alexander Klimburg, it is noted that there is no explicit definition of the multistakeholder approach:

“While the multi-stakeholder concept is generally defined as the participation of representatives from governments, the private sector and civil society, there is no single overriding definition of the term itself…”

Bear in mind that the same misunderstanding is still confusing those who want to know more about the Internet Governance and the “governance” word misleads them to the false perception that this is a process which is totally controlled by the governments.

This shows that multistakeholder concept is not yet mature enough to be used as a standard and there is way too much to go to reach that point. Nevertheless, advantages of this model can be seriously and positively effective on IG in all countries.

One of the pros of this model is the increase of transparency of policies and decision-making because where there are more and new ideas by various stakeholders, always new horizons of solutions can be determined by the community. In fact, the more people involved in discussions, the more inspiration will arise. Nevertheless, there is a criticism about this as well; in many cases, the cooperation of civil society and non-governmental organizations in policy-making processes is still limited to the elite people and groups which can’t be evaluated as a full participation because these elite people may be hidden representative of governments and kind of coverage to keep their monopoly power. One example of this was what happened in recent Arab IGF 2014 in Beirut, Lebanon where I personally witnessed that many participants were complaining of lack of presence of civil society in talks and sessions while many representative from governments (and even sponsors!) had this opportunity to show off what they wanted! This can harm the transparency we’re looking for in this model and may even deprive the trust of civil society and disappoint them to involve more in the future.

Another classic criticism of this model comes from Paul R. Lehto who is afraid of involvement of lobbyists who become legislators and their vote acts as a veto power which prevents others to have a real vote. This, also, refers to the need of transparency in selection of representatives and its process because this transparency can prevent forming such lobbies which lie within the democracy but indeed, act against it.

Concluding these advantages and concerns around the multistakeholderism model, what is important is forming a fair unity between different stakeholders without any superiority, in a way they can work together and focus on a single goal or objective and don’t look at each other as enemies or rivals. Unfortunately where governments involve, they always look at other stakeholders from a top-down perspective while the philosophy behind the MSI model is bottom-up and this behavior should be revised by the governments in order to be able to work together. Obviously, it’s hard to achieve but not impossible!

Originally posted on my Medium page at https://medium.com/@mahdi/multistakeholderism-7a673b6b2246

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