How Democratic Is The Internet Governance And Policy Making Process?

Since its opening up to the world in 1989, the Internet has fast evolved from being just a technical tool to a political one.

Today, there are about three billion Internet users, the majority of whom are little aware of Internet Governance (IG). Still, among those that are aware of IG, few tend to think that it's nothing but an elitist process, a viewpoint that is rather skewed.

Following the establishing of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), a Multi-stakeholder body convoked by the UN Secretary General, Internet governance has become a crucial issue in world politics and is now discussed at the highest levels of diplomacy.

Multi-stakeholderism - a model inspired by Koffi Annan, former UN Secretary General was recognized at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) as the global model for Internet governance, and WSIS outcome document (2005) provides a framework and set of principles for that model.

Paragraph 34 of the Tunis Agenda provides a working definition of Internet governance as

“the development and application by governments, the private sector and civil society, in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programmes that shape the evolution and use of the Internet”.

Ideally, multi-stakeholderism is a pivotal Internet governance principle that proposes a decentralized
but an inclusive and participatory concept which accommodates all the stakeholders/actors. As specified in Article 49 of the 2005 Tunis WSIS Declaration, these Internet actors include National governments, international organisations, the Business sector, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), and the technical community

The roles and responsibilities of each of this stakeholder group are specified in paragraph 35 of the Tunis Agenda, which states that “The management of the Internet encompasses both technical and public policy issues and should involve all stakeholders and relevant intergovernmental and international organizations.”

The IGF Multi-Stakeholder model has been synonymous with the following Internet Governance tenets:

Openness – policy discussions are open to all interested actors from all sectors of life.

Transparency – discussion sessions are webcast and followed remotely. Besides, documentation to discussions are freely accessible to the At-Large community on the respective websites.

Equal Footing - Regardless of the stakeholder group, everyone is accorded the same stature.

While these tenets are widely embraced by the West, China and many developing countries argue for the stronger anchoring of the IGF in the UN system, implying a more prominent role for governments
as far as Internet Governanceis concerned.

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Even though it has adopted the IGF Multi-Stakeholder model, ICANN has experimented on a number of representation models in a deliberate attempt to involve Internet users in the governance of the Internet. The first model was through direct elections of their representatives to ICANN governing bodies, a move that was meant to secure ICANN’s legitimacy. However, it proved to be a flop as it failed to provide real representation of Internet users due to low turn out and misuse of the process.

Later in its 2002 reform, ICANN adopted the strengthening of the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), eventually abandoning the direct voting system.

In recent times, ICANN has adopted a number of concurrent approaches to involve Internet users.
The first is Consensus-driven approach: This approach provides an arena where all Internet
stakeholders can discuss Internet policy issues through various volunteer Working Groups within the
ICANN ecosystem. The overarching aim of this approach is to ensure a broad representation across the Internet community.

The other approach is the the ‘at-Large’ governance structure: This at-Large governance structure uses a “bottom-up” approach, meaning that rather than the ICANN Board solely declaring what topics ICANN should address, members of sub groups within ICANN can raise issues at grassroots level.

If the issues raised are worth addressing, and or fall within ICANN's proposal, they then can ascend through an assortment of Advisory committees and supporting organisations until the policy recommendations are eventually passed to the board for a vote.

It is worth mentioning that after a policy proposal goes through the Policy Development Process (PDP), that proposal has to be put in the public domain at some point in what is termed as “Public Comment Request”.

At this stage, the general public has a chance to review, challenge, and or recommend the policy clause/s in the policy proposal prior to being passed to the board for a vote.

The views by the public are then sampled and looked into accordingly for consideration where applicable.

Conclusion

Some analysts argue that while Internet Governance(IG) Policy making is a democratic process, it isnonetheless complicated.

According to professor Wolfgang Kleinwachter, “the concept is very vague, lacks operational clarity,
and is open to conflicting interpretations and is often not more than lip service” On her part, APC's Annriette Esterhuysen feels that “Multi-stakeholderism participation in Internet policy making has a long way to go if it is to really deepen democracy”.

Despite these highlighted grey areas, a section of the global community acknowledges that MultiStakeholderism model is a vibrant and a balanced form of governance that exudes a relatively fair mechanism for cross-border policy making.

Indeed it is evident that anyone and everyone can get involved in the governance and Internet policy making process, with their voice/s getting heard through either the bottom-up, and consensus driven and Multi-stakeholder approaches.

Cover Image, Internet governance forum - Vilnius 2010 | Veni

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