Multi-stakeholderism & internet: Rare and well-done?

By: , and | Published: May 5, 2016 5:30 AM

Multilateralism is central to policy formulation in India and shedding that is going to be difficult

It is no secret that the authors’ of India’s modern development plans are betting on a rapid expansion in internet connectivity, particularly in rural areas. As Digital India (and its aqua vitae BharatNet) allows more users, services and content to springboard online, the focus on India’s role in global internet policy will sharpen, as it did in the case of trade and the WTO. India’s ability to lead in the near future, thus, depends on its ability to curate serious and thoughtful dialogue on issues of internet governance in the now.

While the internet first sparked into existence as a closed non-commercial network built on public funding, much of its successful evolution since has been shaped by the simultaneous and often complementary contributions of private corporations, tech community, civil society and governments. The diversity and technical sophistication that characterises the internet’s existence also wrests from national governments the capacity to conceive, represent and address the interests of all stakeholders satisfactorily. While traditional “multilateralism” (observable in established post-World War institutions such as the UN and WTO) has arguably been successful in hewing policies to govern global trade, its ability in governing a space that has been famously described as “not (lying) within the borders” that define intergovernmental cooperation seems doubtful.

Governments can often find themselves lacking the capacity to address the unique issues that arise from the multi-layered and decentralised internet, and its governance has, thus, naturally turned towards exploring methods that aim to accommodate the dramatic increase in stakeholder diversity. The dynamic and rapidly-transforming internet appears to have little room or patience for the opaqueness and glacial pace that form the bulk of criticism levelled against traditional international governance models.

“Multi-stakeholderism”, then, denies governments the position of absolute privilege they have long held offline. In idealised conceptions of the process, governments work alongside (and on the same footing as) private corporations that own much of the virtual internet’s real-world servers and satellites, the technical institutions that form and develop the protocols that allow global interoperability, civil society and academia. In such a formation, stakeholder roles are a proportionate consequence of the nature of the policy issue in question. When done right, one of the biggest advantages of such a system is its malleability, as all stakeholders voice their ideas and concerns in a system that lends itself to greater transparency and accountability through wider checks and balances. Conceptually, multi-stakeholderism appears to place a premium on the benefits of information and resource-sharing across networks, in recognition of the resource limitations to which all participants are subject. By employing existing capacity from the private sector and the civil society instead of making costly investments to build internal governmental capacity, this framework allows for large efficiency gains to be made.

Even as the multi-stakeholder system is representative, inclusive and transparent in principle, it is premature to treat it as a panacea for internet policy formulation without taking note of its implementation challenges. The structural divisions that exist between stakeholders (for instance, the differences in capacity between private corporations and financially-constrained NGOs, or between the global North and the global South) often translate into lopsided representation in international fora and imbalances in power. Stakeholder participation is also limited by implicit costs like language barriers, costs of long-term investment in internal capacity building, the lack of coordinated cooperation domestically and explicit costs of international travel. At the same time, inclusiveness must not come at the cost of efficiency and swift decision-making; establishing a formal procedure to examine and synthesise diverse opinions is paramount.

Barring Russia, China and Iran, most of the world has warmed up to multi-stakeholderism in internet governance. Initially having reservations about the dominance of US-based corporations in decision-making process as well as blanket national security concerns, India is a recent advocate of this system. Responding to global pressure and recognising the diverse needs of internet governance, India’s affinity to multilateral system was crushed under its own weight as it committed to multi-stakeholder system of governance in June 2015 at the ICANN53 meeting.

Recently, India reasserted its commitment to the model at ICANN55 and the minister for communications and IT reiterated that the country values the internet to be “open, plural and inclusive.” However, adhering to multi-stakeholderism requires more than mere statements of support in global fora. To be able to make meaningful contributions to the governance process and benefit from its pluralistic nature, multi-stakeholder practices need to adopted in domestic policy-making as well, especially for internet and communications policy.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has been leading on this front; in developing policy recommendations, Trai follows a multi-stakeholder consultation process which is open to the public for participation. Before making its recommendations to the government, Trai addresses all the comments and questions that arise in the consultation process in a transparent manner. The existence of such a formal mechanism to address those suggestions which are excluded from the eventual policy is perhaps the litmus test for multi-stakeholderism.

Recently, other government bodies (like Department of Industrial Policy & Promotion) have been adopting a consultative approach to policy-making. Even as these are steps in the right direction, India lacks a comprehensive mechanism for domestic internet policy formulation that is consistent with its global commitments. The spirit of multilateralism has been central to how policy formulation is viewed in India and shedding it is not going to be easy.

Perhaps a good example of the adoption of a mechanism that is multi-stakeholder in nature is Brazil. The Brazilian Internet Steering Committee was established in 1985 to formulate domestic policies related to the internet. Since its inception, keeping in view the spirit of multi-stakeholderism, the committee has managed diverse perspectives and included ISPs, content providers, telecom infrastructure providers, industry members, civil society, academia and NGOs in its decision-making. It provides frequent grants for users to be able to participate in its events. These efforts to make policy formulation inclusive and representative have enabled Brazil to gain prominence in and contribute significantly to international internet governance discourse.

India will soon account for a substantial part of the world’s online population. Even as there is extensive evidence of the economic and social benefits of internet connectivity for India, the link between economic benefits of the internet and the global system of governance is not immediately clear. However, as internet penetration increases and commerce becomes predominantly electronically-driven, the overlap between issues of internet governance and those of governance generally will grow larger, and India will have greater ability to shape the international discourse on governance. Economic size and opportunity deserve to be translated to meaningful gains globally.

The convergence of issues in communications governance was foreseen when the Communications Convergence Bill was conceived in 2000. Revisiting the legislation, learning from the Marco Civil da Internet, and strengthening multi-stakeholderism may be ideas worth considering. As the bard had said, “Teach thy necessity to reason thus; There is no virtue like necessity.”

Rajat Kathuria is director & chief executive at ICRIER, where Parnil Urdhawareshe and Vatsala Shreeti are research assistants

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