There are few sexier topics in tech than multi-stakeholder governance in internet policymaking, and while we try to abstain from clickbait here, we’ll indulge you yet again, readers, with this post on it.
Stefaan Verhulst, the cofounder of the GovLab at NYU Tandon, has a new paper out on the topic, which, when it comes down to it, is a really important question: How do we manage and operate a “decentralized, non-hierarchical global network” of more than 3 billion people?
In a sense, the internet is the biggest example of anarchic governance in human history to date. Or at least it used to be. Back in the early days of the ’90s, the web was seen as a space verboten to the rules and strictures of government, Verhulst writes. But that’s changing now that the ‘net has become such an important space for all parts of life, not just mouthbreathing hackers.
“There is now a growing sense — perhaps even an emerging consensus — that markets and self-policing cannot address some of the important challenges confronting the Internet, including the need to protect privacy, ensure security, and limit fragmentation on a diverse and multi-faceted network,” Verhulst writes in the paper.
To examine who does actually count as a stakeholder, he lists seven organizations that legitimately play a role in the governance of the information superhighway:
- The G8 Digital Opportunity Task Force (Dot Force)
- The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)
- The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)
- The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)
- The UN-ICT Task Force and the World Summit on the Information Society
- The Internet Governance Forum (IGF)
- Netmundial Initiative
But despite these various orgs, the problem is still a meta one, Verhulst argues. Not only are people not coming up with solutions to governing the internet, people aren’t asking the right questions yet.
“Despite over two decades of efforts to develop a new model of governance — despite all the models that have been tried, with varying degrees of success — the field of Internet Governance lacks an evidentiary basis upon which it could continue to innovate,” he writes. “Efforts like the Stanley Foundation’s exploration of the concept of multistakeholderism (and, to a lesser extent, papers such as this one) can help address such information shortcomings.”
So, like a good academic, he concludes by posing more questions for study:
- How to balance the sometimes-competing demands of legitimacy and effectiveness across policy lifecycles?
- What are the roles of the different stakeholders involved in the internet governance process?
- How to curate participation that can ensure meaningful engagement and constructive discussion without being exclusive?
- How to co-create approaches and solutions at different governance stages by identifying and engaging expertise differently?
- How to identify and address capacity or resource imbalances among stakeholders?
- How to leverage new technologies and methods to enhance and innovate multistakeholder approaches?
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