From IGF to ITU: The Importance of Being a “Stakeholder”

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Multi-stakeholder governance models are based on a dialectic exercise involving natural and legal persons that might be affected by the adoption of a specific norm or policy. The association of different stakeholders in a collaborative governance process is indeed aimed at fostering a better-advised decision-making process, based on the negotiation of consensual solutions.

Multi-stakeholder models are usually aimed at organising cooperative processes amongst a plurality of heterogeneous subjects, deemed as legitimate by virtue of their authority, resource-based power, or discursive legitimacy[1]. Stakeholders are considered as enjoying authority when they have the power to set and enforce specific rules; they are deemed as holding resource-based power when they are effectively able to wield influence on other subjects by reason of their financial and technological resources or because of their capabilities and knowledge; they are believed to have discursive legitimacy when they represent – and act on behalf of – a certain set of societal values or norms.

The aforementioned criteria become fuzzier when immersed in the Internet governance environment. Indeed, such criteria do not represent access conditions for stakeholder participation in Internet governance processes that, on the contrary, are frequently built upon a single overreaching principle: inclusion.

A Multistakeholder Internet Governance

In the internet governance arena, the promotion of a multi-stakeholder model has resulted from the historical evolution of the internet. Indeed, the Internet is a global network whose logic, physic and content layers are intimately intertwined but managed by different entities.  The technical community has directly crafted the architecture of the Internet, by elaborating the standards and protocols which have defined the its logic structure since its very inception; the private sector has been managing and the physical infrastructure of the network; whilst the public actors have been striving to provide law and order into the virtual world, occasionally juxtaposing their national sovereignty.

In such a multi-layer and multi-player environment, the interest of a multistakeholder approach seems patent. According to the Geneva Declaration of Principles, “the international management of the Internet should be multilateral, transparent and democratic, with the full involvement of governments, the private sector, civil society and international organizations” (paragraph 48) whereas the Tunis Agenda for the Information Society has affirmed that “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” (paragraph 34).

These paragraphs have formalised the multistakeholder model around which the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) has been subsequently crafted. Indeed, this “ecumenical forge of ideas” aims at reflecting on public policy discussions the bottom-up and consensus-driven mechanism, according to which internet protocols have been elaborated during the last decades.

The IGF has therefore been built on the assumption that a multistakeholder approach involving governments, the private sector and civil society on an equal footing represents a fruitful stratagem in order to promote dialogue and avoid the fragmentation of the “Network of networks”, thus continuing to enjoy – and fully exploit – the undoubted potential of the Internet with regard to social, economic and human development. A mutual exchange of knowledge seems indeed profitable for multistakeholder-oriented observers who recognise the need to preserve an active interaction between governments, the private sector and civil society, thus reckoning that the roles played by these stakeholders constitute complementary facets of a single Internet governance prism.

The participation of an ample spectrum of heteroclite stakeholders is a pivotal principle of collaborative governance and, when applied to internet policy-making, it becomes a key element of legitimacy, being propaedeutic to the elaboration of a set of policies that may fit into the digital arena. Indeed, multistakeholder participation is vital, for it allows extending to Internet policy-making the very rationale that makes the internet protocols legitimate i.e. being the direct expression of the participatory effort of a heterogeneous community.

Multistakeholder Governance v. Internet Governments

Since the inception of the IGF, its multi-stakeholder process has crystallised two different positions. On the one hand, the multistakeholder-enthusiasts have repeatedly highlighted the benefits of bringing together individuals from governmental and intergovernmental organisations, academia, private and non-profit sectors to jointly address problems of mutual concern.  On the other hand, the detractors of the IGF multistakeholder model have criticised its lack of decision-making power, voicing their frustration due to the lack of concrete outcomes after participation in a four-day-long forum.  The IGF is indeed a decision-shaping forum, not a decision-making one: participants expecting any binding outcome will inevitably face disappointment.

The tension between these two positions have further polarised during the recent Word Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) which took place last December in Dubai.  WCIT has been held under the aegis of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), one of the oldest international organisations in the world, which, since 1865, has played a fundamental role with regard to the standardisation of global telecommunications.  During this international meeting, those who mistrust the Habermassian approach fostered by multistakeholder IGF-like fora had the occasion to voice their disapproval and a new Internet-governance dichotomy seems to have sprung up.

Indeed, instead of determining the consensual adoption of a commonly renewed version of the International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs), the Dubai conference has deepened the fracture between the 89 countries who signed the updated version of the ITRs – amongst which Bahrain, China, the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Russian Federation – and the 55 countries which rejected it – amongst which all the EU Member States, the United States and Canada.

Regardless of the peculiar similarity between the group of ITRs-signatories and the group of countries which are not deemed as liberal democracies, it should be noted that the outcomes of WCIT may represent a potential fracture with regard to the very concept of multistakeholderism.

Notably, Resolution #3, “To foster an enabling environment for the greater growth of the Internet” – a resolution proposed by the Islamic Republic of Iran –, instructs the ITU Secretary General to “take the necessary steps for ITU to play an active and constructive role in the development of broadband and the multistakeholder model of the Internet” (paragraph 2).

Hence, on the one hand, non-ITRs-signatories countries will keep on considering that “the existing arrangements for Internet governance have worked effectively to make the Internet the highly robust, dynamic and geographically diverse medium that it is today, with the private sector taking the lead in day-to-day operations, and with innovation and value creation at the edges” (Tunis Agenda, paragraph 55), whereas on the other hand, ITRs-signatories have signified their will to take the necessary steps to develop “the multistakeholder model of the Internet as expressed in § 35 of the Tunis Agenda” – which expressly states that “[p]olicy authority for Internet-related public policy issues is the sovereign right of States”, thus consigning non-state stakeholders to a merely advisory role.

Although this is a non-binding provision, one should not undervalue its ability to shape the future debate on multistakeholderism.  The acceptance of this resolution by a conspicuous number of ITU members is indeed suggesting their clear will to establish a form of “enhanced cooperation” on the very concept of multistakeholderism, under the auspices of ITU.

It is quite natural to wonder whether ITRs signatories will keep on considering the participation of all the stakeholders on an equal footing as a cornerstone of multistakeholderism or, if under this renewed approach, some stakeholders might end up being “more equal than others”.


[1] Cynthia Hardy and Nelson Phillips, “Strategies of Engagement: Lessons from the Critical Examination of Collaboration and Conflict in an Interorganizational Domain”, in Organization Science, March/April 1998 9:217-230.

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