The next chapter in Internet governance

Samir Saran

Once cradled by global ideals, the multistakeholder community that manages the global commons of cyberspace must now be nurtured by local realities.

 civil society, advocates, not-for-profit organisations, Internet governance, multistakeholder community
Photo: Eric Bridiers/CC BY-ND 2.0

The inclusion of “civil society” — an umbrella group of activists, advocates, not-for-profit organisations, and even the academia — in Internet governance ranks among the most significant achievements of this decade in international relations. For a while, it appeared the “global, multistakeholder community” that drove normative processes like the 2014 NetMundial conference in Brazil, would stitch together rules for managing the global commons of cyberspace.

That assumption today stands on shaky ground. If multistakeholder models of Internet governance were itself a product of globalisation, its future appears uncertain in this current climate of “de-globalisation” and localism.

So, if states and strongmen have reclaimed political authority over national governance, why would they allow digital economies to function outside their remit? What’s more, these popular political leaders have discredited the private sector, which was expected to underwrite the global expansion of digital networks.

Today, companies have neither the appetite nor the legitimacy to incubate such governing platforms. Instruments of globalisation like the Trans-Pacific Partnership were supported by big technology corporations, but as the TPP’s demise shows, the mood across much of the world appears to favour protectionism over expanded trade. If the private sector recedes, multistakeholderism loses its most powerful advocate.

The inclusion of “non-state” actors in global governance itself emerged from a political context, which no longer exists. A world bruised by the global financial crisis mistrusted governments, and created a network of institutions that would not be managed by states alone.

The formation of the G20 (and its sister groupings for businesses and civil society like B20 and C20), short-lived government-bank partnerships, and the renewed focus on cross-border trade all, but ensured that the private sector and non-governmental organisations were seated at the high table of international politics.

Digital spaces benefited immensely from this geoeconomic moment. Whether to widen their consumer base, sustain their fledgling online presence, or ensure connectivity, businesses and governments realised they needed the Internet. Digital networks, therefore, became the conduit for globalisation.

Ironically, digital spaces also sowed the seeds of the current anti-globalisation mood. By shrinking geographies, social media platforms brought divergent, often conflicting voices in proximity to each other. Such online polarisation spilled over into the real world, pitting communities in a zero-sum game.

Majoritarian movements unleashed across the world threw up political strongmen, who in turn renewed the mandate of a strong nation-state. Governments today are more powerful than ever, enforcing protectionist policies, limiting migrants, micromanaging currency supplies, and engaging in widespread surveillance.

This moment in international politics should offer pause to the multistakeholder community, which finds itself in danger of being sidelined by governments — perhaps for good reason.

“Multistakeholderism 1.0” reflects a sharp bias towards transnational corporations, and powerful, omnipresent civil society actors, while constituents from the global South have had their voices hijacked.

As the plethora of cyber policy conversations at the 2017 Munich Security Conference demonstrated, matters of the Internet are essentially a dialogue between white males shouting across the Atlantic. Meanwhile, the biggest technology giants have woefully under-invested in local talent, resources and needs.

This model is synonymous with the absence of government from governance, and relied mostly on the benevolence of markets. This is unsustainable, and will prompt state agencies to step into the governance vacuum created by continuing market failures.

What is the solution to this crisis of conscience and confidence for the multistakeholder community? First, the role of the state should be reviewed in multistakeholder processes. State-led institutions still hold political appeal, especially in democracies, and Internet governance must work with this real and popular mandate of governments.

The state in developing countries continues to guarantee the security of digital infrastructure and networks as a public good, a role that must be acknowledged in multistakeholder platforms. Second, domestic multistakeholder conversations on Internet governance need to be strengthened to ensure marginalised communities that do not have the wherewithal to participate in global dialogue are uniquely represented.

Finally, the thrust of multistakeholder Internet governance itself requires reformation. So far, such processes have sought to promote the openness and freedom of digital spaces and conversations, a laudable goal in which civil society plays an important role. But little energy has been spent on ensuring affordable digital access, and in conceptualising how the next billion will engage with digital platforms.

Will first-generation Internet users in the Asia-Pacific and Africa rely entirely on mobile devices, triggering new conversations on platform security? Are digital policies equipped to handle the proliferation of local language content across devices? Are emerging Internet of Things ecosystems interoperable? Will new Internet users be discouraged from digital spaces by subversive activity online? Will insurance hurdles and cyber-risk ratings retard the growth of digital economies in some regions? These are complex questions that should be confronted by “Multistakeholderism 2.0”.

Multistakeholderism 2.0 requires a democratisation of the process of Internet governance and pluralism in uncovering the universality of the so-called “core values” that influence policy conversations. Recent political developments in the US and Europe suggest the sanguine belief of the existence of a “global civil society” — rallying around common values or ethics — will be tested in the days to come. Therefore, the success of Multistakeholderism 2.0 will be contingent on bringing local communities, businesses and leadership to the forefront of Net politics. As commentators like Latha Reddy argue, countries like India will not only have the obligation to speak for the second largest constituency of Internet users, but also the largest population of unconnected citizens. To serve them, multistakeholderism, cradled by global ideals, must now be nurtured by local realities.

This commentary originally appeared in Live Mint.

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