UNESCO taking forward the Multi-stakeholder debate at RightsCon 2017 Brussels

06 April 2017

Has the word “multistakeholder” lost a shared sense and become like the words “fake news” – being used to mean whatever a person wants to mean?

This was the start of a debate at RightsCon in Brussels last week, in a UNESCO session based on ongoing global research into good practices of “multistakeholderism”, with support of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the Internet Society (ISOC).

Highlighting the debate were questions about whether “trolls” should be taken as being stakeholders in Internet governance, or whether a culture of civility was a necessary condition for multistakeholder participation.

What could be learnt from failure of some regional Internet Governance Fora, was also seen as key in terms of pinpointing the conditions conducive for genuine, rather than co-opted, multistakeholderism.

Issues of recognising power differentials and avoiding “capture” of decision-making processes, were revealed as being at the heart of what counts as authentic multistakeholder governance of the Internet.

The seven expert panelists in the debate included UNESCO’s Assistant Director General Mr Frank La Rue, ICANN’s CEO Goran Marby and representatives from ISOC, the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), European Digital Rights, and the Netherlands government.

Ms. Anriette Esterhuysen from APC emphasized the need to measure the outcomes of multistakeholderism in order to prove its relevance and legitimacy as a means rather than an objective. For her, in spite of all these imperfections, multistakeholderism is a model that creates more channels for civil society participation.

Mr. Goran Marby, CEO and President of ICANN insisted on the need to develop formal structures for successful multistakeholder engagement, so that all participants know how and when to engage, and what the objective should be. This experience at ICANN had proved the value of multistakeholderism, even though the wider process continues to be experiment.

For Ms. Elena Plexida from the EU Commission, multistakeholderism has proven to be a model that works. For the EU, questions related to accountability were the most important regarding how to understand multistakeholderism.   

Joe McNamee from EDrI was more sceptical and considered that multistakeholderism had produced both good and bad effects in different cases. One problem was a result of unequal access.

The whole philosophy of multistakeholderism was to draw from collective wisdom, proposed Constance Bommelaer de Leusse from ISOC.

 Ms Carmen Gonsalves from Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs called for more dialogue around models of multistakeholderism. In her country, there were attempts to to institutionalize it such as with an advisory council on cyber security issues.

Mr. Frank La Rue, ADG for Communication and Information at UNESCO insisted fact that multistakeholderism gave everyone an opportunity to share views, but it was not to be confused with a democratic representative process.

In brief, it is an open dialogue inviting different sectors to talk and find common ground and advocacy,” he said.

UNESCO will taking stock of the insights and aims to complete its study of the issues by May 2017. The research is being conducted as one of the pillar principles of “Internet Universality” framework as endorsed by UNESCO’s 195 Member States in 2015.

Summarised in the acronym ROAM, the four principles of Internet Universality are: Human-Rights, Openness, Accessibility and Multi-stakeholder participation. This project will strengthen understanding of the Multi-stakeholder principle, enriching the way that UNESCO can use its status and networks to promote knowledge and uptake of this practice.

To read: Keystones to Foster Inclusive Societies