Back in December, governments from around the world convened in Dubai to update the treaty that governs the international telecommunications system -- but negotiations failed due to concerns that the revised agreement could make Internet companies from Google to Tumblr, and not just traditional telecom companies, subject to its provisions. These international rules would have slowed innovation by bringing the Internet into a system designed for state-run telecom monopolies. Fifty-five governments, including most of the liberal democracies, refused to sign the updated treaty.
This week there is another meeting happening in Geneva, but this time it is providing an opportunity for governments to exchange views without the pressure of producing a binding agreement. The World Telecommunication/ICT Policy Forum (WTPF) is supposed to come up with a handful of consensus-based opinions that do not have the force of international law. The opinions will be used to build and support each country's objectives in future treaty negotiations. Of the issues under discussion, the most contentious is the role of government in what is known as the "multi-stakeholder process."
As words go, "stakeholder" isn't exactly the scariest. But when it comes to discussions about the future of the global Internet, the word is part of a vague framework that leaves room for some states to pursue their less-than-noble intentions. Two conferences that took place back in 2003 and 2005 (together known as the "World Summit on the Information Society," or WSIS) launched the current debate. A number of governments expressed criticism of the exceptional role that the United States played in administering the Internet's Domain Name System, which converts human-readable names (like foreignpolicy.com) into numeric addresses. The day-to-day administration of the system was (and is) handled by ICANN, a California non-profit corporation, under an agreement with the U.S. Commerce Department. To satisfy critics of this arrangement while simultaneously forestalling the possibility of intergovernmental control of the Internet, the second WSIS conference in Tunis adopted language stating that, "The international management of the Internet should be multilateral, transparent and democratic, with the full involvement of governments, the private sector, civil society and international organizations." Note the four classes of stakeholders.
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Eight years after Tunis, the "multi-stakeholder" model remains the consensus framework for legitimizing Internet institutions. Yet the term has never been defined, and beneath the apparent agreement that the multi-stakeholder model should be supported, there are at least three schools of thought about what that exactly means.
Authoritarian governments have been quick to remind the world that they are stakeholders, too. Since the Tunis Agenda urges all stakeholders to work together "in their respective roles," the most illiberal countries have simply argued that national governments should have the biggest and most pre-eminent roles, while other stakeholders should have smaller subordinate ones. Russia in particular is aggressively pushing this definition for the role of governments. Its proposed edits to the multi-stakeholder opinion invites member states "to exercise their rights on Internet Governance ... at the national level," by which it means that national governments should preempt ICANN.
In other words, Russia -- and its allies like China and Saudi Arabia -- are adopting the language of multi-stakeholderism to support something rather like its opposite. The position they are advancing is virtually indistinguishable from one which accords no role to other stakeholders.
The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the U.N. agency responsible for coordinating telephone and satellite policy, also has an interest in questionable interpretations of the model. The rise of the Internet makes the ITU's traditional telephone portfolio less important. In response, the ITU Secretariat has insisted that the limited, non-voting participation it sometimes affords to private-sector entities makes the ITU a multi-stakeholder institution -- one that is therefore in a position to take the lead on Internet governance. In a recent speech in Brussels, Secretary-General Hamadoun Touré said of the draft opinion in question: "This opinion reiterates what I have been saying for some time -- that the ITU has been multi-stakeholder from its inception."