Perspectives on Internet Governance: (Why) Does Internet Governance Matter?

By defining both internet and governance, this essay shows the imprecise and vague limits of the frequently-used technology policy term Internet Governance. It then explores the different subject areas that may fit in the broadest understanding of internet governance and the fundamental limitations of even such a broad understanding. Further, the essay explains the concept of multistakeholder governance, and, through historical and operational perspectives, answers the complex question of whether Internet Governance is multistakeholder, which is a claim regularly attached to any debate within the field. Finally, the essay culminates with the answer to the titular question by drawing a parallel to previous emerging technologies, their failure to reach a somewhat-mature governance ecosystem, and the potential for significant future benefit from the study of a hybrid governance environment such as the one currently in place for Internet governance.

“Internet Governance” is one of the more nebulous technology policy concepts being used today, yet it touches on what has become a critical resource for the global economy. It simultaneously means the practice of Internet Governance, the policies of Internet Governance institutions, the study of the phenomenon of Internet Governance, and basically anything else that can fit its wide margins. The reason for these wide margins is because there are many things that qualify as Internet Governance, regardless of its meaning, from digital policy to DNS routing to technical standards.

However, the conversation about Internet Governance (IG) is rarely one that conveys nuance and breadth. In fact, most of the time, IG is characterized as being a shining example of multistakeholder governance (which is fitting because multistakeholder governance is just as misunderstood). IG is not, in its entirety, multistakeholder, or even fully governance. This piece unpacks what Internet Governance is by trying to understand both its parts and their sum, then explains what multistakeholderism is and whether Internet Governance is multistakeholder. Finally, it addresses the question in the title, by looking at the broader implications of a somewhat-mature governance ecosystem for an emerging technology.

What is Internet Governance?

One of the “fathers” of the Internet, Vinton Cerf, describes the Internet as “simultaneously a technological and [a] socioeconomic space” (Cerf et al 2013, p. 2), but the notion of the “Internet” can be enlarged to contain pieces of “digitally networked environments” (Benkler 2006, p 357). Governance is even harder to pin down. Governance could be defined as a third mode of power interaction that does not neatly fit in with either market forces or government structures (Cashore 2002). In other words, governance deals with non-hierarchical regulation and can be seen as distinct from both the private and the public sector (Stoker 1998, Mayntz 2003). Some (Stoker 1998, Rosenau 1995) perceive governance as an umbrella term and see it as the sum of a variety of policy-making, including both government and its actions, and the hybrid, novel attempts at organization.

The early usage of the word governance within the confines of the structures of the Internet sparked controversies. As Kurbalija (2016) points out, its linguistic similarity to “government” in English, as well as the translation of governance into other languages, enhanced the confusion. For instance, in Latin-based languages it is directly linked to governmental undertakings. Thus, those present at the early 2000s United Nations-backed negotiations believed that “governance” would rest primarily with the nation-states and that other actors would be at the periphery, in, at most, a consultative capacity (Chenou & Radu, 2014).

While initially describing it as “a large, complex, and ambiguous topic” (p.48), Solum (2008) narrowly defines Internet governance (IG) as “the ordering of whatever technical systems enable the operation of the global network of networks as a platform for applications”.

DeNardis and Raymond (2013) divide the broad area of Internet governance into six different types of functions, by building on DeNardis’ (2010) previous taxonomy of Internet governance.  This division is, in part, intended to allow scholarship and researchers to move past the narrow sliver of issues usually covered, a common critique of the field (van Eeten and Mueller 2012, Ziewitz and Pentzold 2013, DeNardis 2010, 2014). The first function is control of “critical Internet resources”, which encompasses a significant part of the technical backbone of the Internet, from the DNS to IP address distribution to the root zone file. While some are the purview of other organizations and a few have been contracted out, most of these tasks are to be performed by ICANN. Those that are not very familiar with the distinction between the six areas of Internet governance will substitute critical Internet resources for the entire field. In other words, a significant number of practitioners, journalists and other experts focus on ICANN as a necessary and sufficient condition for discussing “Internet governance”. And while one can argue that this would simply be a narrower definition of Internet governance, the paradigm through which this understanding of Internet governance manifests itself would not preclude the other five areas from being integrated.

A second area highlighted by DeNardis and Raymond (2013) is setting Internet standards. These are the blueprints for the technical language, the constraints and parameters of every activity on the Internet. Largely multistakeholder, non-governmental international standards bodies, carry out these tasks. These organizations are technical by nature, however they are not devoid of politics (DeNardis and Raymond 2013, Bradshaw et al 2015).

The remaining tasks that make up the technical infrastructure of the Internet, not captured under critical Internet resources, form the third functional area, access and interconnection coordination (DeNardis and Raymond, 2013). Besides various tasks related to access, this area houses one of more misunderstood, if not actually overlooked, important puzzle piece of the operation of the Internet, Internet exchange points (IXPs). These are the “physical junctures where different companies’ backbone trunks interconnect, exchange Internet packets and route them toward their appropriate destinations” (DeNardis 2010 p 12). There are 534 IXPs in the world, making up the vital connection points through which data travels around the Internet (Wagner and Mindus, 2015). Their regulation is entirely up to the different service providers that are connecting, or “peering”, at each point (Wagner and Mindus, 2015).  This leads to large discrepancies in the governance of IXPs, which would make for captivating academic papers, but the state of research on this topic is lacking (Wagner and Mindus, 2015).

Cybersecurity governance is the fourth area identified by DeNardis and Raymond (2013). This area, with its cybersecurity-related tasks, has a rather large swath of primary institutional actors, ranging from individual end-users all the way to international standards-setting organizations. Cybersecurity as a field is well defined and centered, however, according to van Eeten and Mueller (2012), a significant number of authors deride or ignore Internet governance.

Fifth in this categorization is the policy role of information intermediation. Mostly content-related, this part of Internet governance deals with everything from privacy to security, and from cyber-bullying to government requests for data, and is performed mostly by private, commercial actors. Literature on this area is mostly related to national laws and corporate practices.

Lastly, with a rather self-explanatory title, architecture-based intellectual property rights enforcement is the sixth area (DeNardis and Raymod, 2013). This area mostly perpetuates the rules, standards and technical parameters put in place by actors operating within one or a combination of the other areas.

This assessment of IG as a wide, diverse, and uneven area may be correct, but it is usually not the dominant perspective. The oversimplification of Internet governance into its more well-known institutions has two advantages, as explained by van Eeten and Mueller (2012). First, the neatness and convenience of studying a centralized location removes the hassle of identifying points along one or more distributed networks of processes. Secondly, these institutions are governed by explicit procedures and policies that in the rest of the Internet governance sphere are informal, fragmented and sometimes hard to access, thus much harder to pinpoint and study (van Eeten and Mueller 2012).

This phenomenon uncovered by van Eeten and Mueller (2012) in the academic world of Internet governance, has striking parallels in its practice. This is evident in the proposed augmentation of the scope and mandates of the institutions that are thus codified as executing Internet governance regardless of whether or not they actually do it.

Is IG Multistakeholder?

With at least a broad sense of what IG is, before getting to the meat of this section, it is time to get familiarized, in brief, with multistakeholderism.

Multistakeholderism is a broad term signifying a wide array of complex governance structures that at their core argue for a different perspective on policy-making. In their work explaining and detailing the governance aspect of multistakeholder processes, Vallejo and Hauselmann (2004) separate “stakeholder participation” and “government involvement”, which echoes the otherwise broad definition they use from the Commission in Global Governance: “the sum of the many ways individuals and institutions, public and private, manage their common affairs” (p. 3). In Warner (2005) the overall rhetoric on what multistakeholderism means revolves around “power-sharing”, thus signaling a clear focus on the diluted power of the government. Faysse (2006) describes the motivation behind multistakeholderism as a “promotion of ‘participatory democracy’ to complement the limits of more traditional ‘representative democracy’” (p 219).

DeNardis and Raymond (2013), in their attempts to demystify and operationalize multistakeholder governance, distinguish two dimensions: 1) the kinds of actors; and 2) what their authority relations are). According to the authors, the four types of actors they consider are based on international relations conventions, and are states, formal intergovernmental organizations, firms, and a fourth type that agglomerates NGOs, civil society groups or movements and individuals that are acting on their own (DeNardis and Raymond 2013). Of the two dimensions, the former requires two out of four types of actors be represented, while the latter distinguishes between hierarchy, homogenous and heterogeneous polyarchy, and the discarded anarchy.

While this may be just the tip of the iceberg in terms of multistakeholderism, it is a good point to ask the question, is IG multistakeholder? As previously mentioned, the lack of nuance in the way in which IG is usually described turns the conversation into a duality, a debate between multilateralism and multistakeholderism. This debate has deep roots.

The general talking point, evidenced most obviously in Kurbalija (2016), and either explicitly or implicitly present in most of the literature and developed-world practitioner communications, is that the Internet is and should remain “Open”. Open is related to the technical aspect, wherein the underlying language and protocols are not proprietary, or centralized, but also to a lack of prohibitive regulations that would hinder innovation and discovery. Subsequently, and enshrined in the WSIS final documents (Kurbalija 2016), the idea of multistakeholderism has been attached to the need for keeping the Internet open. Thus, any critique of multistakeholderism is perceived as a critique of an open Internet, and the multilateral versus multistakeholder duality leaves very little room for equivocation.

With controversies displaying the newly contentious side of Internet governance (Bradshaw et al 2015), there have been a significant number of proposals on reforming Internet governance principles since 2011 (Brousseau and Marzouki 2012). As an example, at ITU’s 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), which met to revise its International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs), several states, primarily BRICS and other developing countries, tried to introduce a few articles to elevate the role of the ITU within Internet governance and with it, promote a larger role for states and multilateralism (Shackelford and Craig 2014, Cerf et al 2013). These were widely criticized by both the United States and non-state actors involved in Internet governance, as potentially harming the open Internet (Chenou & Radu, 2014, p 13).  The WCIT failed to reach a conclusion, even on a non-binding document (Chenou & Radu 2014). This was not an isolated event. Hill (2014), former senior staffer for the ITU, while admitting that the Internet has some unique characteristics, believes that overall it would not require any new modes of governance. In fact, he pushes back against the idea that the role of the state, and subsequently that of intergovernmental organizations like the ITU, is dwindling. He calls for a larger scope for the role of such organizations as an obvious conclusion.

Countries and international multilateral organizations hope for a self-preservation of their roles as regulators, policy-makers and overseers of telecommunications technologies. They see it as a continuation of what came before, and argue that while the Internet is important, or perhaps because the Internet is important, it should be regulated under existing global bodies, that are well-suited to handle its intricacies, thus saving it from any trial-and-error approach. It has worked before, why would it not work now? The rest see it as less of an evolution of telecom, and more of a revolution. The importance of the internet to our daily lives becomes clear as arguments are made for access to internet to be classified as a human right. The global and interconnected nature of the Internet raised significant concerns about multilateral proposals, considering the tremendous power nation-states yield in these arrangements. Even more, a multilateral system carries with it potential downsides, especially as they relate to fundamental precepts such as civil liberties and censorship among others, in a system where only governments, regardless of their approach to democracy, have a say. Nevertheless, in order to forcefully and legitimately counter the multilateralism narrative, the proponents of multistakeholderism largely brushed nuance aside, and declared, rather unreflexively, that the multistakeholder way is the best and only way to handle the governance of the Internet.

The answer thus to the question in the section title is maybe. Internet Governance is more often than not described as multistakeholder, with little to no admission of legitimate criticisms of the governance structure or of the contention that the ecosystem is far from being fully multistakeholder. There is no concession that some of the institutions are not multistakeholder by even the laxest definition but simply “not-multilateral”, and most importantly no acknowledgement of the multitude of layers of governance structures and institutions. It may probably be this way because fighting an entrenched bureaucracy and an established governance ecosystem is an uphill battle, and any admission of imperfection could crumble its defenses. The fight is perhaps also undergirded by the hope that by continuously declaring that IG is multistakeholder, actors would internalize it and propagate it, whether true or not.

Why does it matter?

In the end, this seems mostly like a debate over semantics, with two entrenched sides unwilling to compromise over what is clearly a very diverse and robust governance ecosystem. So why would Internet Governance matter, multistakeholder or not?

Previous emerging technologies, billed as revolutionary, held the promise of changing our daily lives, in good or bad ways, through incredible breakthroughs. This consistently led to debates on the proper way to govern. Certain voices argued on behalf of the status quo, that the novelty can be neatly folded into existing governing structures. Others called for a novel perspective on governance in light of such new dimensions of change, while also looking towards the future for a successfully-tested framework in mind for “the next big thing”. This latter group spread across the political spectrum, from those on the right who saw it as a chance for deregulation, self-regulation, or some other kind of light touch approach, to those on the left who were hoping to get a more inclusive, precautionary-principle governance perspective.

However, a combination of moral panic, unsustainable hype, ethical dilemmas, cultural backlash, unrestrained optimism, and unchecked ambition, consistently derailed the emerging technology itself, long before mature governance structures would be established. One such example, among others, is Nanotechnology, where a new structure was proposed by some that were arguing that nanotechnology is unique and needs a different assessment not just in terms of risk (Maynard 2006), while others pressed for a mixture of assessments already existing (Roco and Bainbridge 2005, Linkov et al. 2009). Here, the conversation outpaced the actual research, and ultimately stalled, as the promise of life-altering changes disappeared, before actually spawning any governance ecosystem.

The internet, developed in the late 1960s, slowly and without the fanfare or dread afforded to other emerging technologies, expanded from a few American universities connected to each other, to a global backbone that has significantly altered and permeates our daily lives. Its governance ecosystem organically co-evolved with it. However, the debate about how to shape its governance ecosystem proceeded as it would have for any other emerging technology.

The governance debates of previous complex, global issues never had the chance to progress this far, as they died along with the hype for the emerging tech itself. An opportunity like this could lead to a better understanding of how to build governance structures for emerging technologies.

The hybrid ecosystem of Internet Governance, whether it is called multistakeholder or not (it is definitely not multilateral) can provide important lessons for any future framework for a similar patchwork of regulatory, enforcement and oversight mechanisms and institutions.


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(this essay is also posted at SSRN)

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