The Internet is a place where the complexity of multi-stakeholder innovation works, writes Rajnesh Singh.
The Internet is unique in many ways, not least because it is inherently decentralised: a network of thousands of autonomous networks, making bottom-up governance.
A thriving example of this openness is the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), a more organised descendant of the ad-hoc sessions engineers and scientists had, when they needed to agree on protocols that connected networks to each other. In telecommunications, standards are generally set by states and private firms, which are subsequently ratified by standardisation bodies such as the Telecommunication Standardization Centre, ITU and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE ) before being applied globally.
Internet standards, by contrast, can be developed by literally anyone by submitting a draft RFC, or Request for Comments. These end up at the IETF, where people decide on their merit through rough consensus in an open standards process.
It all started about 10 years ago in Tunisia, when representatives from government, industry, technical groups and civil society agreed on a plan that would underpin Internet governance discourse for the next decade. The forum was the second World Summit on Information Society (WSIS)— a follow-up to the first meeting in Geneva in 2003. The WSIS, convened by the United Nations, is famously known as a watershed moment, when Internet governance ceased to be solely about how the Internet runs, but equally about how it is used as it becomes more economically, socially and politically significant to the world.
Concretely, the WSIS produced, through the recommendation of its Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG), the Tunis Agenda, along with a global multi-stakeholder platform where everyone can discuss Internet-related affairs on equal footing: the Internet Governance Forum.
Since then, multi-stakeholder consultations, dialogue and processes have gained more traction as a policy development approach in various fora, from the OECD to the World Economic Forum to APEC and ASEAN.
The formal notion of Internet governance began as a technical necessity. An independent body needed to be formed to manage the allocation of domain names, as well as the root zone system that contains the information linking these names with their numerical IP addresses. Until then all of this was done by one man, American computer scientist Jon Postel.
This led to the creation of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) in 1998. It is, as the name suggests, a private entity, performing what became known as the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions under contract with the US Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). But it also follows a multi-stakeholder and globally-distributed process.
The Internet has undoubtedly become more multi-dimensional—and it is this increasing complexity that makes multi-stakeholder governance all the more crucial.
Multi-stakeholder governance, while lacking universal definition, has become an umbrella framework for arrangements that seek to bring together various actors – at times with conflicting interests – to exchange ideas and perspectives, build bigger communities, and collaborate on their common issues of concern.
It is an evolving landscape. The IGF continues to grow in breadth and depth, with new regional and local IGFs being set up each year. Through its Best Practices track, it is also progressing from being just a ‘talk-shop’ to a forum that produces tangible outcomes. Last year, the NetMundial Multistakeholder Meeting in Brazil recognised the dynamic roles played by different stakeholders in different contexts. ICANN itself is in transition, with the NTIA having announced that it will relinquish its stewardship of IANA to the global multi-stakeholder community. ICANN submitted an IANA stewardship transition plan developed by the global Internet community to the US Government in March 2016, and this paves the way for next steps in the process.
In December 2015, the UN General Assembly convened to review the outcomes of the WSIS Action Plan. The adopted outcome document highlighted the role ICTs have played in economic and social development while also noting the significant digital divides that still need to be bridged through enabling policy environments and international cooperation.
But the future of Internet governance could not be clearer in Asia-Pacific. While some countries move in for tighter online controls, governments are also making more information publicly available, and starting to engage in active dialogue with non-state organisations and the general populace, using both online and offline channels. Civil society is demanding more transparency and other steps, such as building people’s capacity and resources, to minimise outstanding barriers to inclusion. This is well illustrated in the ongoing debate on Net neutrality in India, where policymakers, media, industry, and activist voices compelled some one million citizens to respond to the state’s consultation paper.
The Internet that we know now is sum of the choices made not by a special group of people but by its innumerable users and creators – including institutions, businesses, technical experts, academics and individuals. It is rich and universally relevant, in some ways a bit edgy, but increasingly indispensable to our daily lives.
It is a living proof of multi-stakeholder innovation at work – and we should not have it any other way.