The Multistakeholder Model and Neo-liberalism:

“Post-democratic” Internet Governance

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Article published in ALAI’s magazine No. 494:  Internet, power and democracy 10/06/2014
One of the truly remarkable recent developments in the Internet area from a civil society perspective is the sudden emergence and insertion of the “multistakeholder model” (referred to here also as multistakeholderism or MSism) in Internet Governance discussions some 2 or 3 years ago.  The term of course, has been around a lot longer and even has been used within the Internet sphere to describe (more or less appropriately) the decision-making processes of various of the Internet’s technical bodies (the IETF, the IAB, ICANN).
Associated with this is the new and somewhat startling full court press by the US government (USG) and its allies and acolytes among the corporate, technical and civil society participants in Internet Governance discussions, to extend the use of the highly locally adapted versions of the MS model from the quite narrow and technical areas where it has achieved a considerable degree of success, towards becoming the fundamental, and effectively the only, basis on which such Internet Governance discussions are to be allowed to go forward (as per the USG’s statement concerning the transfer of the DNS management function).  Notably as well, “multistakeholderism” seems to have replaced “Internet Freedom” as the mobilizing Internet meme of choice (“Internet Freedom” having been somewhat discredited by post-Snowden associations of Internet Freedom with the freedom of the USG –to “surveille”, “sabotage”, and “subvert” via the Internet).
In the midst of these developments there has been a subtle shift in presenting MSism as a framework for Internet Governance consultation processes to now presenting it as the necessary model for Internet Governance decision-making.  Moreover it is understood that this decision-making would be taking place not only within the fairly narrow areas of the technical management of Internet functions but also into the broader areas of Internet impact and the associated Internet related public policy where the Internet’s significance is both global and expanding rapidly.
Most importantly the MS model is being presented as the model which would replace the “outmoded” processes of democratic decision-making in these spheres–in the terminology of some proponents, providing an “enhanced post-democratic” model for global (Internet) policy making.
So what exactly is the “multistakeholder model”?
Well that isn’t quite clear and no one (least of all the US State Department which invoked the model 12 times in its one page presentation to the NetMundial meeting in Brazil) has yet provided anything more than headline references to the MS “model” or examples of what it might look like (but probably wouldn’t, given the likelihood of the need to contextualize individual instances and practices).
But whatever it is, a key element is that policy (and other) decisions will be made by and including all relevant “stakeholders”. This will of course include, for example, the major Internet corporations who get to promote their “stakes” and make Internet policy through some sort of consensus process where all the participants have an “equal” say and where rules governing things like operational procedures, conflict of interest, modes and structures of internal governance, rules of participation etc. etc. all seem to be made up as they go along.
Clearly the major Internet corporations, the US government and their allies in the technical and civil society communities are quite enthusiastic; jointly working out things like Internet linked frameworks, principles and rules (or not) for privacy and security, taxation, copyright etc. is pretty heady stuff.  Whether the outcome in any sense is supportive of the broad public interest or an Internet for the Common Good, or anything beyond a set of rules and practices to promote the interests of and benefits for those who are already showing the most returns from their current “stake” in the Internet, well that isn’t so clear.
What I think is clear though is that the MS model which is being presented, is in fact the transformation of the neo-liberal economic model which has resulted in such devastation and human tragedy throughout the world into a new form of “post-democratic” governance.  (This connection between the neo-liberal economic model and multistakeholder governance is presented most clearly in a document published by the Aspen Institute with numerous Internet luminary co-authors and collaborators–“Toward A Single Global Digital Economy”.  The paper argues for, outlines and celebrates the dominance of the Internet economy by the US, US corporations and selected OECD allies and provides a plan of action for the implementation of the MS model as the supportive governance structure.)
So, for example, while there are clear and well-regarded opportunities for participation by private sector stakeholders, technical stakeholders and civil society stakeholders in the Internet policy forums (marketplace) there is no one in the process (no “stakeholder”) with the task of representing the “public interest”.  Thus no one has the responsibility for ensuring that the decision -making processes are fair and not contaminated and that the range of participants is sufficiently inclusive to ensure a legitimate and socially equitable outcome.  Nor in the multistakeholder model, as in the neo-liberal economic model, is there any external regulatory framework to protect the general or public interest in the midst of the interactions and outcomes resulting from the interactions between individual sectional interests.
¿What about the public interest?
Similarly, whereas in a normal democratic process (or a non-“liberalized” marketplace) the underlying framework and expectations of participation would be that the actors would be pursuing the “public interest” (with of course, different interpretations of what that might mean) and that there would be some basic social contract to provide a “social safety net” for all the individuals and groups, and particularly those least able to defend their own interests, in the MS model there is no promotion of the public interest.  Rather somehow the public interest is a (magical) bi-product/outcome of the confluence (or consensus) processes of each individual stakeholder pursuing their particular individual interest (stake).  Government may or may not be an (equal) stakeholder in this model but in any case the overall intention is, if possible, to remove government altogether (even as the protector of rights and ensurer of equitable processes and outcomes).
This of course, has to be seen as an overall “privatization” of governance where for example, major Internet corporations have an equal standing in determining Internet governance matters in areas such as regulation (where such is allowed to occur) alongside other stakeholders.  In this model there is no space for the Internet as a common good; or as a space or resource equally available for all as a tool for general economic and social betterment (including for example by the marginalized, the poor, those from Less Developed Countries and even those who are not currently Internet “users”). “Stakeholders” get to make and even enforce the rules and anyone who isn’t or can’t be a “stakeholder”–well tough luck.
Similarly there is a refusal to accept even the possibility of a regulatory framework for the Internet (the argument most forcefully articulated in the course of the Internet Freedom campaign); or that the Internet might be of sufficient importance as a fundamental platform for human action in this period, that it can no longer be seen as a domain of solely privatized action and control.
The now highly visible damaging effects of neo-liberalism are very well known.  These have become evident through its promotion of the privatization of public services such as education and health care in Less Developed (and Developed) Countries, with the consequent significant increases in non-schooling and deterioration in health among the poor, the marginalized and the rural; the undermining of the social contract and social safety nets in Developed Countries with the associated increases in child poverty, homelessness, and hunger; the “Washington Consensus” and externally imposed austerity regimes, which many countries around the world are only now recovering from (and which the International Monetary Fund - IMF - itself has recognized as a serious and highly destructive mistake); the actions of the IMF and World Bank in insisting on privatization and deregulation and thus decimating numerous local enterprises in favour of multi-nationals; and overall, through providing the ideological drivers (and models) for a significant social and economic attack globally on the poor and vulnerable.
This is the mode of governance which through multistakeholderism, its counterpart in global (Internet) governance and beyond, is to be the basic governance model for the Internet promoted quite unsurprisingly by the corporate sector and the US Government, but equally and astonishingly by wide elements of civil society and the technical community as well.
The real significance and ultimate target for this neo-liberalization of governance is, of course, not with narrow technical Internet Governance matters, but rather with issues such as taxation of Internet-enabled commerce and ultimately of the need for revenue sharing with respect to Internet-related economic activity, in a world where income inequality is growing at an unprecedented rate on an Internet and global digitization platform.
An uneven playing field
The current context, where global Internet giants such as Google or Amazon are completely free to transfer/allocate revenues and costs anywhere they choose within their multinational empires, so as to minimize tax exposure, is rapidly reaching a critical point where some sort of intervention is likely.  On the longer-term horizon, the significance of both global and internal national income polarization – much of it having some linkage to digital technology and the Internet – will at some point need intervention and rebalancing if social unrest is to be avoided.
In a multistakeholder governance regime, Internet giants such as Google or Amazon will presumably be equal partners/stakeholders in the determination of matters of Internet regulation, taxation, and the possible allocation/reallocation of overall benefits, i.e. those matters which are of direct financial concern to themselves and their shareholders/owners.  And these determinations will be taking place in policy contexts where there are no obvious champions/stakeholders representing the broad global public interest.  That such an arrangement is directly supportive of US and other Developed Country interests and the interests of dominant Internet corporations, i.e. those most actively lobbying for the multistakeholder model, is clearly not an accident.
Equally of course, the Less Developed Countries will be at a distinct disadvantage.  Their governments lack the knowledge and often the resources to act as effective stakeholders in MS processes.  Their national Internet corporations are either sub-units of global corporations or too weak to be effective in such environments; and many of their Civil Society organizations have been captured by means of the cheap baubles of international travel, the flattery of “participation” in discussions with Internet luminaries, along with the crumbs of localized organizational benefits. The citizens of these countries (as with the disadvantaged populations in Developed Countries) will be completely at the mercy of elites in the Developed Countries, and in those small segments of their own countries who have already achieved success in the global Internet sphere and stand to benefit enormously in prestige and otherwise through the dominance of multistakeholder governance processes.

Michael Gurstein, a Canadian, is Executive Director of the Centre for Community Informatics Research, Development and Training. A version of this article originally appeared as a blogpost on


* This article is part of edition No. 494 of ALAI’s (Spanish language) magazine “América Latina en Movimiento”, special English language digital edition, titled: “Internet, power and democracy”.
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