UNESCO resists JNC’s attempt to turn “democracy” against ordinary Internet users

Today in Paris UNESCO (the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization) finalised the outcome document from its conference, “CONNECTing the Dots: Options for Future Action”. The document is wide-ranging, and although it doesn’t push the envelope as far as civil society would like on issues such as privacy and intermediary liability, it nonetheless contains some welcome and hard-fought provisions on freedom of expression (for example, recognising social media producers as worthy of similar protections as journalists), on access to information and knowledge (referencing the importance of open access, open data and FOSS), and affirming the relevance of work on network neutrality, amongst other areas. It also manages to avoid the few negative provisions that marred the NETmundial statement, and as such was welcomed by major civil society groups on the ground in Paris as a worthy outcome of one of the most consultative, multi-stakeholder processes that one could expect from a United Nations body. Since it is a non-binding document it was not put to the vote, but was accepted as a consensus outcome by acclaim, as signaled by a round of applause.

All except by one civil society splinter group, the Just Net Coalition (JNC), whose representative, former ITU (International Telecommunciations Union) officer Richard Hill, interrupted the closing ceremony to voice a formal objection to the document, because it did not reflect two of the changes that JNC members had demanded during the open drafting sessions. One of these was a reference to “social and economic rights” that was apparently proposed at one point by Anita Gurumurthy, and the other was Hill’s repeated insistence throughout the conference that all references to “multi-stakeholder” throughout the document include the qualifier “democratic” (and in the end there was only one such reference, in paragraph 1.5 which makes the purely factual observation that the “open Internet is… characterized by Multistakeholder participation”).

In typical bombastic, sanctimonious fashion, Just Net representatives have been expressing how shocked (shocked!) they are that I was amongst those who objected to their insertion of this qualifier, claiming that it reveals that I am against democracy (and probably that I torture kittens, etc). After all, who could possibly have any legitimate reason to object to the word “democratic”, which Hill attempted to wave away as merely an “editorial” change? In fact, as a seasoned veteran of intergovernmental negotiations, Hill knows very well how by proposing a seemingly innocuous amendment—a comma here, a “where appropriate” there—one can make deceptively profound changes to the meaning of official documents, that can have reverberations decades later. (Consider the unforeseen implications that the innocuous phrase “enhanced cooperation” has had since WSIS, for example.)

What, then is “democratic multi-stakeholderism”? It’s not the multi-stakeholderism that characterises the open Internet, that’s for sure. Rather, it’s the limited type of government-led rulemaking, in which the other stakeholder groups offer merely a subsidiary advisory role, that I revealed as the agenda of the Just Net Coalition in a previous post. It sets up a false binary between democratic multi-stakeholderism on the one hand, and “equal-roles” multi-stakeholderism on the other; the straw-man position that they ascribe to me and others that supposely holds all the stakeholders to be equal in multi-stakeholder processes. While some, probably, do continue to hold that position, the preferable and more widely-held view post-NETmundial, and the middle ground that the JNC binary obscures, is that the roles and responsibilities of stakeholders will vary depending on the issue in question, the governance mechanism being applied, and the forum in which the stakeholders come together.

Thus in some cases—a treaty on the use of cyber-weaponry in war, for example—it might be appropriate for governments to take a leading role, while consulting with the other stakeholder groups, in much the same fashion that JNC supports. But in other cases—the development of new technical standards to protect the privacy of Internet users, perhaps—it would be more appropriate for the Internet technical community to have the principal role. In still others—developing model terms of service for Internet intermediaries, for example—civil society and the private sector might appropriately exercise leadership, though naturally within a legal framework that governments have established. These cases, in which multi-stakeholder working appropriately excludes a dominant role for government, would be precluded by the replacement of the flexible term “multi-stakeholderism” for the narrower phrase “democratic multi-stakeholderism”, which would only encompass the first of the three examples given above.

One will occasionally hear a JNC representative draw a distinction between processes that lead to public policy decisions embodied in laws and treaties, over which governments are to exercise sole authority, and other governance processes such as the development of standards, guidelines and recommendations, in which they may admit the participation of other stakeholders on a more equal footing. But their admission of this possibility is belied by their use of the “democratic multi-stakeholder” phraseology, which doesn’t admit of any such nuance, and could easily be used by repressive states or others to constrict the legitimacy of such soft normative processes in the future. Indeed, some might argue it already has—given that in the first post-NETmundial process in which they introduced their “democratic multi-stakeholder” language, the WSIS+10 review, a high-level meeting to be held this December has been ruled as intergovernmental only, in a regression from multi-stakeholder norms that other fora such as the IGF and NETmundial had established.

Moreover, JNC’s position that there is such a thing as “public policy decisions” that should be reserved to governments sets up a further false binary, given that in the post-Westphalian era, government edicts such as laws and treaties no longer necessarily have effects that have any more practical force and impact than non-governmental decisions, such as those that ICANN makes over domain names and IP addresses, or those that private-sector arbitrators make in cross-border trade disputes. It is imperative that we do not close these non-governmental processes to being improved through multi-stakeholder participation of various forms. This must be broad enough to include forms that do not place governments in a position of authority over other affected stakeholders, many of whom, such as trans-national networks of citizens, governments alone do not adequately represent.

It is therefore time to stop this insidious form of words from spreading any further, and that is why I was proud to be amongst those who stood up to oppose the constriction of UNESCO’s support for multi-stakeholder Internet governance to only limited forms of “democratic multi-stakeholderism” that are led by states.