The traditional path of multilateralism is usually thought of as very much based on interactions and agreements between nation states. This political form of organization is a closed system encompassing multiple governments, and there are strong barriers to enter or participate in the system. While it is premised on creating a binding effect (consensus), discouraging unilateralism, and giving a voice and voting authority to smaller powers, this is not always the case in multilateral arrangements. I will use the United Nations (UN) as a point of reference to validate my point.
In the UN, the objective is that irrespective of the differences in territorial size, population size, military power or economic strength, all states have the same legal personality, although it is universally acknowledged that this principle does not correspond to the reality. And while a ‘one state, one vote’ rule does exists within the UN General Assembly, the Security Council (the most powerful body within the UN) has five permanent members who all hold the power to veto resolutions brought by the other members. And while there is a revolving door in terms of non-permanent members, there are at least 60 members who have never held a seat on the Security Council. Inequality is very much evident in this arrangement.
However, although systems such as the UN remain multilateral from the perspective that only states are members of most of its formal bodies, civil society does participates in a consultative role. Furthermore, civil society organizations have performed important roles such as mobilizing support for UN policies, gathering information, offering advice and drafting treaties. In a number of conventions, NGOs have not only offered expert advice, but have also drafted treaty language. So, in effect, the system is not entirely closed.
That being said, this traditional path of multilateralism is still not well suited for maintaining an open, resilient, and secure Internet, mostly due to the fact that it is not informed by broad participation of various interested stakeholders — including businesses, technical communities, civil society, academia — through a consensus, bottom-up process of policymaking.
Still, to be fair to governments, there are references in the Geneva principles as well as the Tunis Agenda that recognize and affirm that a multilateral process should exist apart from the multistakeholder approach with regards to mapping out the future roadmap on Internet governance. A strong argument can also be made that the Internet governance ecosystem is not entirely sensitive to the cultures and national interests of nations, and that the current framework of Internet governance is not particularly effective in responding to some of the core and strategic concerns of nation states (cyber crime, cyber terrorism, child online protection, protection of critical infrastructure, taxation, etc.).
So what we need is continued evolution of Internet governance mechanisms to a point where there is successful interplay between multilateralism and multistakeholderism, and which substantially improves the degree to which multilateralism can in practice (and not just in theory) become more representative, democratic, transparent and accountable – and whereby its contributions would benefit the entire Internet ecosystem.
That being said, I think that we’re witnessing several improvements in terms of how multilateral and multistakeholder institutions are coexisting and cooperating to work on Internet governance issues without significant tensions, and without undermining the Internet and its vast potential.
For example, the WSIS+10 High Level Event, which was organized by predominantly multilateral agencies (ITU, UNESCO, UNCTAD, and UNDP) to review the progress made in the implementation of the outcomes of WSIS. The preparatory process and the outcome documents can be viewed as positive developments, and can be recognized as examples of how multilateral institutions are opening to multistakeholder participation, especially given that member states have increasingly acknowledged the critical roles that other stakeholders have to play. See WSIS+10 outcome documents here: <http://www.itu.int/net/wsis/documents/HLE.html>.
There was also incremental progress at the ITU’s Plenipotentiary Conference, which took place last year. At the conference, Member States agreed to establish mechanisms to enable multistakeholder input to the government-only Council Working Group (CWG) on International Internet Public Policy. While it would have been preferable to open the CWG entirely to multi-stakeholder participation, these advances are still commendable.
Another organization that has shown great promise in terms of the fusion of multilateralism and multistakeholderism is the OECD. The organization has a number of mechanisms in place to assist governments in developing policies to stimulate the digital economy. The Committee for Information Computer and Communication Policy (ICCP) has instituted a framework for participation of non-governmental actors in its work. The multi-stakeholder Internet Technical Advisory Committee contributes to the work of the OECD Committee on Digital Economy Policy (CDEP) and its specific working parties such as the Working Party on Communications and Infrastructure Services Policy (CISP) and the Working Party on Security and Privacy in the Digital Economy (WPSDE).
The recently concluded Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in João Pessoa, Brazil also had quite a large number of government delegates. See Participant List here: <http://www.intgovforum.org/cms/igf2015-participantslist>. This demonstrates that more state actors are realizing the importance of the multistakeholder process, and seeking to embed themselves deeper in the activities of the IGF. Interestingly enough, the Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG), the steering committee for the IGF, is comprised of a number of representatives from national governments.
While realizing the benefits of the Internet is not dependent on government, there is definitely a role for governments in the governance of the Internet, and this role is evolving, just as multistakeholderism continues to reshape and reform itself. Hopefully, the transition of the IANA function will be an optimal paradigm shift towards an Internet governance approach that fully embraces all stakeholder groups (and not just governments, but civil society and end users as well).