Excerpts from “Criteria of meaningful stakeholder inclusion in internet governance”

My paper Criteria of meaningful stakeholder inclusion in internet governance has just been published at the Internet Policy Review. Here are some excerpts:

This paper proposes a set of four criteria of meaningful stakeholder inclusion in global internet governance processes, that can simplify the process of examining and critiquing processes that purport to allow for public or multi-stakeholder involvement in public policy development. Because the criteria that will be presented here are largely independent, they allow for the multi-dimensional assessment of such processes. In comparison, the application of a binary designation “multi-stakeholder” conveys too crude a meaning, which has allowed its appropriation by a broad range of processes (Raymond and DeNardis, 2015, p. 575), some of which are not particularly open or participatory. This has even led certain people to assume that multi-stakeholder processes are necessarily undemocratic or captured, merely because some are. …

More specifically, the criteria of meaningful stakeholder inclusion presented here are designed to capture the extent to which the processes in question are effectively designed to incorporate the viewpoints of all affected stakeholders into the development of those policies in a balanced way, this being the essential feature from which this subset of multi-stakeholder processes can claim democratic legitimacy. Because it is very difficult to get this right, skepticism about multi-stakeholder processes in general is justified. But at the same time, there is little alternative to exploring such processes, given that despite pockets of internet policy that can be effectively governed locally, more often the border-crossing impacts of (or impacts upon) such regulation caused by the internet’s global architecture impel stakeholders to coordinate in order to govern those issues effectively and legitimately. …

As a first step towards achieving meaningful stakeholder inclusion, it is suggested to apply the following criterion as to whether the right stakeholders are participating in a multi-stakeholder internet governance process:

The body should have access to the perspectives of all those with significant interests in a policy problem or its possible solutions.

Strategies that a body can pursue to ensure that it meets this criterion include:

  • Being structurally and procedurally open to admit the participation of all stakeholders who self-identify as being significantly interested in an internet governance policy problem or by the possible solutions to that problem that are within its mandate.

  • A programme of resourcing and outreach to ensure that the perspectives of all those stakeholders who are significantly affected by that problem or those solutions are indeed included.

  • Flexibility to adapt its internal structures and processes to accommodate stakeholders within groupings that facilitate the work of the body, and can be consensually accepted by all participants as being fair and balanced. …

How, then, should the perspectives of different stakeholders be balanced, and by whom? There are two main ways in which this can be done: through policy development processes designed to roughly balance the views of stakeholders ex ante (but usually subject to a formal decision-taking process by a governing council), or by a deliberative democratic process in which the roles of stakeholders and the balancing of their views are more dynamic (though might again be subject to a formal decision taking process, which may be situated elsewhere, and/or be distributed). Some multi-stakeholder processes may also combine these two models. …

The flattening of power imbalances, which is intrinsic to deliberative democratic processes, is also absolutely critical to multi-stakeholder processes of all kinds, if they are to promote meaningful stakeholder inclusion in internet governance. Yet while there are many examples of how to do this, there is no single template that will serve all bodies best. Thus this document does not prescribe in detail how workflow and agenda work, how consensus is assessed, how committees are structured, what online tools or meeting methodologies should be used, and so on. Instead the following more general criterion is proposed, along with some examples of how it may be advanced:

There must be mechanisms to balance the power of stakeholders to facilitate them reaching a consensus on policies that are in the public interest.

The ways in which this can be done include:

  • As a first pass, agreeing upon any unique roles of the participating stakeholders in respect of the policies under consideration, based on all relevant factors including historical roles, expertise and resource control.

  • Thresholds for decision-making, such as rough consensus, that give all stakeholders an effective voice in developing policy, while minimising the possibility of minority veto or capture by the powerful.

  • Deliberative processes that flatten power differences between stakeholders and require them to defend their position in terms of their view of the public interest. …

Mechanisms of accountability must exist between the body and its stakeholders to demonstrate the legitimacy of their authority and participation respectively.

The factors involved in determining whether this is so include:

  • Where the body exercises any authority over the stakeholders, its legitimacy to do so (whether institutional, democratic, meritocratic, or otherwise) must be generally accepted by the community of stakeholders at large.

  • The body must operate transparently and adopt mechanisms of accountability that are recognised as organisational best practices, such as independent review.

  • The process must include means by which the stakeholders can be held accountable for the legitimacy of their participation, as appropriate to the process and their roles in it.

The fourth and final question bears upon how “meaningful” is the stakeholder inclusion in an internet governance process, where meaningfulness is a function of how closely the stakeholder’s participation is linked to empowered spaces in which authoritative mutual decisions are made, as opposed to public spaces that are limited to discussion (Haristya, forthcoming). The body might not be an empowered space in itself, but might be effectively (and usually formally) linked to other empowered spaces, which can also make participation in the former meaningful to some degree; amongst these processes, some may lay claim to being multi-stakeholder, while others might not. However a body which is neither empowered in its own right, nor effectively linked to empowered spaces, is not accurately described as a multi-stakeholder process, and certainly not as one that provides meaningful stakeholder inclusion in internet governance. …

For some, multi-stakeholder processes can and should be directly empowered to make or to implement global internet governance policies. But for others, there are concerns about multi-stakeholder processes that directly effect changes in global governance, particularly outside of the technical and administrative realm.

These concerns are heard from both the political left and the right. From the left, they have manifested in a rejection by some of multi-stakeholder processes in general, to the extent that these lack the intermediation of more traditionally representative democratic institutions such as national governments, or intergovernmental bodies such as the United Nations (Gurstein, 2014). This in turn stems from a distrust of providing corporations with a pervasive role at (and behind) the negotiating table, as this is seen as effectively corporate self-regulation under another name, and therefore a diluted pacifier to much needed action (by governments).

The right on the other hand has no great love of regulation, and so while expressing support for the multi-stakeholder model, has been wary of accepting it as a method of policy development. For example, some private sector stakeholders have been amongst those most resistant to the IGF developing the capacity to produce even non-binding recommendations, since this would complicate the existing structures of power and influence by which corporations and governments craft policy in less open fora, or act in default of policy (Malcolm, 2008, p. 425).

This paper seeks to address these concerns by breaking the essential features of effectively inclusive processes into several criteria, and in particular by separating out this last criterion, which isolates the core concern of these critics. The extent of the disagreement can be further narrowed by breaking the process of internet governance into several stages, such as framing and agenda setting, drafting, validation of outputs, implementation and dispute resolution (de la Chapelle, 2011). Most of the concerns about overreach of multi-stakeholder processes could be resolved by limiting the empowerment of those processes to the stages of framing and drafting. And indeed, those are the stages to which almost all multi-stakeholder processes outside of the technical and administrative are already limited. …

For each stage involved in governance, the body should either be directly empowered to execute it, or linked to external institutions that have the authority to do so, as appropriate.

This requires, for example, the following:

  • The body should develop a shared understanding of the extent of its own legitimate authority (that may vary by issue, stage of governance, implementation mechanism, and over time).

  • At every point where the body lacks either the capacity or the authority to act, formal or informal two-way liaison mechanisms linking its outputs to external empowered institutions should exist.

  • To facilitate this, the outputs of the body should be collected, synthesised, recorded and delivered in clear, actionable forms.

No claim is made that meaningful stakeholder inclusion in internet governance is easy to achieve, or that if achieved, it will easily resolve all internet policy problems. In particular, distributional effects of existing power structures are all-pervasive and these cannot be ignored. Inclusive stakeholder participation will not fully negate these imbalances. However, to the extent that multi-stakeholder processes score highly against the criteria presented here, they are less likely to have negative distributional effects than existing, less-inclusive governance institutions and processes that afford greater control over the global internet to overreaching national sovereigns and near-stateless global monopolists alike. …


Read more at Internet Policy Review.

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