Multistakeholderism unmasked: How the NetMundial Initiative shifts battlegrounds in internet governance
This opinion piece is part of the ‘The Global Governance Futures 2025’ programme which brings together young professionals to look ahead and recommend ways to address global challenges.
The year 2014 was a historic year in internet governance: From the announcement of the IANA transition process to the NetMundial meeting and the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference, the procedures and policies regarding the coordination of the internet seem to be more than ever a central topic of global governance. Most of these events have been welcomed by large parts of the internet community for fostering an inclusive multistakeholder approach at the expense of more traditional intergovernmental forms of governance. But just before the end of the year, yet another process in internet governance added a bitter aftertaste to this development: the NetMundial Initiative (NMI). Perceived by some as an attempt to create a “Security Council of the Internet”, this new initiative has stirred an intense debate among civil society groups about the limits of multistakeholder governance – a debate which could actually help to overcome the gridlocked controversy between multistakeholder and intergovernmental governance models for the internet.
The NMI was officially launched on 6 November 2014 by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the Brazilian Internet Steering Committee (CGI.br). It is hosted by the World Economic Forum (WEF), best known for arranging an exclusive annual meeting for the world's political and economic “elite” in Davos, Switzerland. Aiming to “take advantage of the WEF’s uniquely interdisciplinary, leader-level multistakeholder community”, the NMI does not appear to have much in common with its namesake, NETmundial, the “Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of internet Governance” hosted by Brazil in April 2014 in São Paulo.
Indeed, the original NetMundial process brought together 1500 representatives from governments, international organisations, the private sector and civil society to develop new principles of internet governance and a roadmap for the future. While this one-time event was praised by many for its open, inclusive and transparent structures, the new ICANN-WEF initiative has been met with serious reservations – and this despite its seemingly well-meant objective to “seek through multistakeholder dialogue and action to apply the NETmundial Principles in ways that enhance trust in the capacity of the Internet's distributed governance ecosystem to respond to a range of emerging policy challenges". Within civil society and the technical community, where reactions range from unconcealed scepticism to categorical rejection, the doubts mainly concern three different aspects of the NMI.
Firstly, the process through which the NMI was created and functions has been heavily criticized for its lack of transparency, bottom-up inclusion and consultation. It is perceived as a significant departure from the NETmundial outcomes, which called for internet governance to be based “on democratic, multistakeholder processes, ensuring the meaningful and accountable participation of all stakeholders”. In contrast to these principles, the NMI created a “Coordination Council” that was supposed to comprise 20 members and – like the UN Security Council – five permanent seats, all chosen through a centralized top-down approach. Reacting to the criticism on this arrangement, the NMI’s initiators have since distanced themselves from the idea of permanent seats and allowed stakeholder groups to appoint their own representatives to the council.
Secondly, concerning the objectives of the initiative, many worry that the NMI could have a negative impact on the UN Internet Governance Forum which, despite all its flaws, has served since its inception in 2006 as a unique grassroots discussion-forum for policy problems related to the internet. While ICANN’s CEO Fadi Chehadé tried to smooth ruffled feathers by asserting that the NMI’s work is not supposed to serve as a substitute for the IGF but rather complement its efforts, critics continue to question how additional leader-level coordination could in any way add separate value to the existing internet governance landscape. In addition, suspicion arose about ICANN, currently in charge of the narrower technical issues of naming and numbering, having a possible agenda regarding the establishment of an equivalent institutional framework for broader internet public policy issues.
Thirdly, and most interestingly, it is the interests behind the initiative that unsettle many in the internet community, in particular those civil society representatives who always view with a critical eye the involvement of industry in internet governance. Due to its link with the WEF, a small and wealthy group with expertise in facilitating engagement between big business and governments but with little experience in grassroots decision-making, the NMI is considered by many to be “an attempt by economic and political elites to secure a central role in Internet governance”. This is one of the reasons why several civil society groups usually involved in internet governance decided to abstain from participating or endorsing this new initiative, most prominently the Internet Society (ISOC) and the JustNet Coalition.
When looking at all the clamour over NMI, some observers rightly wonder how much influence such an institution could actually have in terms of real governance authority over the public policy aspects of the internet. But despite its marginal political impact, the NMI’s announcement has already resulted in an interesting twist in the debates about authority in global governance because it exposes the hidden perils of multistakeholderism.
Indeed, until recently, most controversies about internet governance were the result of a dichotomy between the proponents of traditional regulation through intergovernmental authority and those of a multistakeholder model, the hypothetical middle ground between a free-market model, a cyberlibertarian idea of self-regulation and the classical governmental approach. What the debates about the two divergent approaches rarely reveal is that most implementations of the multistakeholder approach are far from an ideal governance model. In fact, while multistakeholderism may have so far allowed various non-state actors to participate in internet governance processes, it does not necessarily lead to a wider range of views or a more global representation of interests and concerns. In several instances, multistakeholder processes actually tend to increase the overrepresentation of actors from the highly developed Western world, whereas they neglect developing countries, which often lack independent civil society networks and strong business players that could meaningfully engage in the existing structures.
But with the discussion around the NMI, the battleground seems to have shifted: Without any intent to do so, WEF and ICANN’s new initiative contributes to revealing this imbalance and the inherent contradictions of stakeholders usually united by their opposition to an intergovernmental approach to internet governance. The NetMundial Initiative therefore fosters a new but much needed discussion on power mechanisms and could eventually shed light on the real interests of those proponents of the multistakeholder approach who seem eager to maintain the unbalanced representation of voices and concerns in internet governance. In the long run, this discussion could lead to a more honest and transparent scenario for multistakeholderism, which does not fail to consider the rights and interests that all countries and all users have in the governance of the global internet.
Julia Pohle is a researcher at the centre for Studies on Media, Information and Telecommunication (SMIT) at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. She is a fellow of the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO) and the Global Governance Futures (GGF 2025) program. Since 2013, Julia has been a member of the steering committee of the Global Internet Governance Academic Network (GigaNet). The views expressed are her own and should not be attributed to any of the institutions she is affiliated with.