Perspectives on Internet Governance: The case for the Human Element

Multistakeholder Internet governance institutions are not being properly studied. Research focuses primarily on structure, which has its own set of concerns and limitations, but it overlooks the human element, which may play a vital role in shaping these institutions. The human element, which encompasses the human actors and their networks, is potentially important because of both the way the institutions themselves function internally to promote and highlight individuals, and the effect these institutions have on the participants. While this may sound interesting, a straightforward question emerges as to why this has not yet been studied. Two explanations of why this has not been the case so far cover both the substantive environment and its inherent complexities, and the theoretical biases inherent in the most prevalent lens used to study these institutions, borrowed from a related but entirely different area of research, democratic decision-making. Based on these points, before value is added to this role, it is paramount to try and uncover whether the human element has any substantial impact in the shaping and ongoing functioning of multistakeholder institutions on par with structure, and my upcoming dissertation tackles this issue.

The study of multistakeholder Internet governance institutions focuses on their inherently structural concerns. From legitimacy to inclusiveness, from power dynamics to enforcement, the questions and the answers pertain to structure. Of course, structure is a central part of the equation in dealing with institutions broadly, not just in a multistakeholder environment. However, that may not be the sole piece of the puzzle in this instance. Beyond the serious and obvious concerns at the structural level of multistakeholder internet governance institutions, an entirely different and potentially fundamental aspect, the human elements and their surrounding networks, is being overlooked.

This piece addresses two fundamental issues related to this proposal and is sectioned accordingly. First it provides preliminary evidence as to why the human element may be as crucial to the shaping and continuous functioning of these institutions. Secondly, it uncovers several reasons as to why the study of multistakeholder internet governance institutions has overlooked the human element, and focused primarily on structural matters. To that point, this article shows that the potential importance of the human element to multistakeholder internet governance institutions can be revealed by its connection to the functioning and processes of the institutions, but also by its shaping through the constraints inherent to the institutions. The piece then reveals that both the historical and political context of the institutions, and the abstract blind spots of the theory used to study the institutions have prevented any serious inquiry into what the role of the human element may be within the molding and continuing existence of said institutions. Finally, it argues that any future conversation on whether positive or negative has to be preceded by a more thorough understanding of such a potential role. My upcoming dissertation builds on and interrogates this line of reasoning by empirically studying the physical meetings of three of the most important multistakeholder institutions of Internet Governance, ICANN, IETF and IGF.

How does the human element interact with these institutions?

Many hints about the importance of the people themselves are hidden in how these institutions function. Fellowship programs, like ICANN’s Fellowship or NextGen programs or ISOC’s similar programs for IETF and IGF, are more than extended networking opportunities. They are inherently legitimized entryways into the community. In fact, I was able to witness this first-hand as an ICANN58 Fellow in March 2017 in Copenhagen, and ICANN61 in March 2018 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Being part of the fellowship allows participants to easily interact with established members of the community, by giving them an organizational position that is recognizable. The steps needed to reach the higher echelons of leadership and the mostly-open deliberations ensure that a transparent and gradual power dynamic exists, as this peripheral participation moves new members closer to the center of power by establishing them as legitimate actors.

Furthermore, the nature of the institutions in question, and of the ecosystem at large, promote the tight-knit community aspect of IG. Being part of the deliberations, in multiple meetings or different organizations, around the world, for days and weeks at a time, requires a significant time, money and knowledge investment that any entity interested in participating has to make, regardless of how limited its resources are. Thus, the representative of a company, non-profit, government or technical community would benefit from attending more than just one meeting of one institution. In short, the same people being part of different meetings and working groups is not only a result of the nature of the institution, it also creates a community that more than likely communicates outside of strict structures or institutional boundaries.

If important, why has it not been studied before in this context?

These hints have not permeated the literature on, or practitioner understanding of multistakeholder governance, as the human elements are seen as inconsequential, faceless, interchangeable bits that power the system, rather than important pieces of the puzzle, on the same level as structural concerns. I have uncovered at least two potential reasons why this is the case.

The existence of multistakeholder institutions in Internet Governance is not in a vacuum. While IG has evolved and the ecosystem is seen as stable, there are significant voices, primarily from the Global South, that are still pushing for multilateral governance. They contend that the multilateral system, which had worked for previous telecommunications technologies, would still be more beneficial to the Internet than the multistakeholder model. In this context, it would be very difficult to admit that a multistakeholder institution would need not only a properly designed structure, but also a deep understanding of the people that would be part of it, along with an appreciation of the role their networks play.

A more theoretical potential reason why the human element is disregarded may be the assumptions of democratic decision-making. A perfect example of this is the concern about legitimacy in multistakeholder governance, and in private governance overall. This conversation, as Hachez and Wouters (2011) show, expands on, but ultimately still borrows heavily from democratic legitimacy, wherein the structure of the country, its fundamental institutions, its core values, etc. are envisioned to endure beyond the tenure of its creators, organizers, or founding leaders.

Max Weber’s notion of charismatic authority makes most rational thinkers weary of establishing people, and their networks, as fundamental to not only the continued existence of a governance structure, but to its success, as well. This type of authority is expanded in examples of authoritarian or dictatorial regimes. The main difference, theoretically, is that multistakeholder governance is significantly more horizontal, more inclusive in its leadership roles (primarily in terms of stakeholder participation) and less likely to devolve into authoritarian rule than a regular democratic nation-state. In fact, when discussing democratic values, the assumption that does not translate properly to the IG ecosystem is that they should be strong enough to withstand any temporary attack by one or several leaders, since they underline the structures that are truly fundamental for our well-being. That is not a fear that permeates IG institutions.

Conclusion

It is possible to argue that by admitting the importance of well-connected and thoroughly involved individuals to the functioning of a governance ecosystem, the unelected elites are designated policy-makers simply by the nature of their existence. Taken at face value, and without any other provisos, the notion that the individual people currently inhabiting the IG ecosystem are as important as the carefully created structures within the ecosystem would sound at least a bit distressing, since new generations would inherit a personalized and broken system.

Valid arguments for the positive or negative value of the potential importance of individuals in multistakeholder Internet governance institutions can easily be made. The initial step in this debate, however, is to overcome biases carried over from democratic theory, not worry about the larger duality of multilateral-multistakeholder, and use the evidence already there to study whether humans and their social networks have any significant impact on the functioning of these institutions.

My upcoming dissertation tackles that particular issue, by analyzing the public attendance and involved participation of the 2016 and 2017 meetings of ICANN, IETF and IGF, to identify potential overlap and patterns, and their relationship to the structures of the institutions. In addition to understanding attendance records, I will also use participant observation, conversations within the community, as well as interviews and document analysis. I plan on finding out to what extent the participants and their networks confound the structures of these three different iterations of multistakeholder governance institutions.

(this essay is also posted at SSRN)

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