Troubleshooting the Internet’s Transition to a Multi-stakeholder Community

The 11th UN Internet Governance Forum (IGF) took place in Mexico on 5-9 December 2016 to discuss Internet-related public policy issues. The IGF is a multi-stakeholder (MS) platform, which “serves to bring people together from various stakeholder groups” on an equal basis and through an open and inclusive process. During IGF2016, stakeholders addressed a recent important development for Internet governance and the MS approach: the transition of the stewardship of one of the most important governing organizations of the Internet, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). The transition was completed with the expiration of the contract between the U.S. government and IANA. The latter is now fully in the hands of the MS community. This development raises various concerns, one of which is how the stewardship of an organization by the MS community will function in practice and how non-stakeholders, i.e. ‘the unconnected’ or rather ‘the to be connected’ will be represented. In this commentary, I argue that the MS approach to Internet governance is essential but the uneven worldwide distribution of this unique resource requires the utmost attention.

The IANA coordinates some of the key elements that make the Internet function. Although the Internet is known for working in a decentralized manner, global coordination regarding certain technical aspects is needed. The key elements that IANA coordinates include the management of Domain Names (i.e. “top-level domains”, such as “.com” and “.nl”), Number Resources and Protocol Assignments (e.g. IPv4 and IPv6). IPv4 and IPv6 refer to the Internet Protocol (IP) address, which is a numerical label or ‘address’ assigned to each device connected to the Internet that uses the Protocol to communicate (e.g. your router or printer at home).

IANA’s transition, from a state controlled to a non-state controlled governance model, increases transparency, inclusiveness and political independence of this vital part of Internet governance. It marks an important development by addressing one of the critiques of the current governance structures of the Internet, namely U.S. or Western dominance of the way the Internet is regulated. However, this dominance, to a certain extent, continues as the Internet has not reached every region of the world (although all countries are connected), or even all of the citizens of countries with a relatively high penetration rate. For example, the country with the most users is China with over 721 million users but this amounts only to about half of the total population. Conversely, Iceland with a population of over 330,000 has reached 100 per cent penetration rate. Globally, despite initiatives to connect ‘the unconnected’, such as, global satellite internet or Google’s Loon Project, just over 3.5 billion people currently have access to the Internet out of 7.4 billion people approximately on the planet. More than half of the global population cannot access the benefits it brings in terms of information, knowledge and economic opportunity. This division is particularly acute in Africa and Asia. Being connected to the Internet remains a privilege.

The MS approach has been chosen as the most practical one for Internet governance. The Internet Society, a global Internet NGO formed in the early 1990s, states that the MS approach “works best on issues where: decisions impact a wide and distributed range of people and interests; there are overlapping rights and responsibilities across sectors and borders; different forms of expertise are needed; legitimacy and acceptance of decisions directly impact implementation.” However, Stuart N. Brotman, from the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings, is more critical, arguing that “multistakeholder governance can work in practice, but when viewed in a broader context (…) the chances for failure are high and the prospects for success low.” Brotman lists as the most important challenges: (1) differences in importance amongst stakeholders; (2) engagement with and participation from different stakeholders; (3) legitimacy issues; (4) inclusiveness considerations; and (5) accountability. These are all relevant, especially in light of IANA’s transition. Most importantly, how exactly can people ‘be connected’ in the near future especially since important global and regional actors like the European Union are considering the Internet “a common good”, and given the various global Internet initiatives (as outlined above) that are pushing for global “connectivity”?

Following its involvement in the 2015 Global Conference on CyberSpace hosted by the Netherlands, The Hague Institute published a policy brief on strengthening MS models. The recommendations, which address the issues outlined by Brotman, emphasize that decision-making processes should be transparent, that disadvantaged stakeholders should be empowered, and that leadership positions within governance mechanisms should rotate to ensure the voices of all stakeholders. Considering the various differences between stakeholders and soon-to-be stakeholders, these recommendations provide clear actionable points to ensure legitimacy, accountability, participation and inclusiveness in the MS approach.

In conclusion, IANA’s transition marks an important development for the MS approach in Internet governance and demonstrates the continued support of the U.S. The challenges raised by this commentary, especially that of increasing global connectivity and making distribution more equal, should be addressed head-on to make the MS approach a success.

The Hague Institute first tackled the issues highlighted in this commentary with a three-day conference on cyber governance in 2014. The conference brought together renowned academics and practitioners, such as Professor Laura DeNardis and Milton Mueller, from more than a dozen countries to discuss critical challenges and identify policy recommendations for the global governance of cyberspace. The conference was the first part of its 3-year Global Governance Reform Initiative (GGRI), which is funded by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs and run in partnership with the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. In 2016, the GGRI organized conferences on ‘oceans’ and ‘migration’ as challenging ‘spaces’ for global governance.  The Hague Institute also addresses multi-stakeholder approaches through its work on conflict prevention, under the specific areas of ‘water diplomacy’ and ‘city responsibility’.

Further Reading

Completed: Conflict Prevention in The Hague

This pilot project is part of the Institute's international research on City Responsibility: The Role of Municipalities in Conflict Prevention, which aims to understand how municipal…


Completed: Global Governance Reform Initiative

The Global Governance Reform Initiative (GGRI), a collaboration between  The Hague Institute for Global Justice, The Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Observer Research Foundation…