How do we encourage greater public inclusion in Internet governance debates?

The Internet is neither purely public nor private, but combines public and private networks, platforms, and interests. Given its complexity and global importance, there is clearly a public interest in how it is governed.

Reading of the NetMundial outcome document, by mikiwoz (Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Internet is neither purely public nor private, but combines public and private networks, platforms, and interests. Given its complexity and global importance, there is clearly a public interest in how it is governed, and role of the public in Internet governance debates is a critical issue for policymaking.

The current dominant mechanism for public inclusion is the multistakeholder approach, i.e. one that includes governments, industry and civil society in governance debates. Despite at times being used as a shorthand for public inclusion, multistakeholder governance is implemented in many different ways and has faced criticism, with some arguing that multistakeholder discussions serve as a cover for the growth of state dominance over the Web, and enables oligarchic domination of discourses that are ostensibly open and democratic.

In her Policy & Internet article “Searching for the Public in Internet Governance: Examining Infrastructures of Participation at NETmundial”, Sarah Myers West examines the role of the public in Internet governance debates, with reference to public inclusion at the 2014 Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance (NETmundial). NETmundial emerged at a point when public legitimacy was a particular concern for the Internet governance community, so finding ways to include the rapidly growing, and increasingly diverse group of stakeholders in the governance debate was especially important for the meeting’s success.

This is particularly significant as the Internet governance community faces problems of increasing complexity and diversity of views. The growth of the Internet has made the public central to Internet governance—but introduces problems around the growing number of stakeholders speaking different languages, with different technical backgrounds, and different perspectives on the future of the Internet.

However, the article suggests that rather than attempting to unify behind a single institution or achieve public consensus through a single, deliberative forum, the NETmundial example suggests that the Internet community may further fragment into multiple publics, further redistributing into a more networked and “agonistic” model. This doesn’t quite reflect the model of the “public sphere” Habermas may have envisioned, but it may ultimately befit the network of networks it is forged around.

We caught up with Sarah to discuss her findings:

Ed.: You say governance debates involve two levels of contestation: firstly in how we define “the Internet community”, and secondly around the actual decision-making process. How do we even start defining what “the public” means?

Sarah: This is a really difficult question, and it’s really the one that drove me throughout my research. I think that observing examples of publics ‘in the wild’—how they are actually constituted within the Internet governance space—is one entry point. As I found in the article, there are a number of different kinds of publics that have emerged over the history of the internet, some fairly structured and centralised and others more ad hoc and decentralised. There’s also a difference between the way public inclusion is described/structured and the way things work out in practice. But better understanding what kinds of publics actually exist is only the first step to analysing deeper questions—about the workings of power on and through the Internet.

Ed.: I know Internet governance is important but haven’t the faintest idea who represents me (as a member of “the public”) in these debates. Are my interests represented by the UK Government? Europe? NGOs? Industry? Or by self-proclaimed “public representatives”?

Sarah: All of the above—and also, maybe, none of the above. There are a number of different kinds of stakeholders representing different constituencies on the Internet—at NETmundial, this was separated into Government, Business, Civil Society, Academia and the Technical Community. In reality, there are blurred boundaries around all these categories, and each of these groups could make claims about representing the public, though which aspects of the public interest they represent is worth a closer look.

Many Internet governance fora are constituted in a way that would also allow each of us to represent ourselves: at NETmundial, there was a lot of thought put in to facilitating remote participation and bringing in questions from the Internet. But there are still barriers—it’s not the same as being in the room with decision makers, and the technical language that’s developed around Internet governance certainly makes these discussions hard for newcomers to follow.

Ed.: Is there a tension here between keeping a process fairly closed (and efficient) vs making it totally open and paralysed? And also between being completely democratic vs being run by people (engineers) who actually understand how the Internet works? i.e. what is the point of including “the public” (whatever that means) at a global level, instead of simply being represented by the governments we elect at a national (or European) level?

Sarah: There definitely is a tension there, and I think this is part of the reason why we see such different models of public inclusion in different kinds of forums. For starters, I’m not sure that, at present, there’s a forum that I can think of that is fully democratic. But I think there is still a value in trying to be more democratic, and to placing the public at the centre of these discussions. As we’ve seen in the years following the Snowden revelations, the interests of state actors are not always aligned, and sometimes are completely at odds, with those of the public.

The involvement of civil society, academia and the technical community is really critical to counterbalancing these interests — but, as many civil society members remarked after NETmundial, this can be an uphill battle. Governments and corporations have an easier time in these kinds of forums identifying and advocating for a narrow set of interests and values, whereas civil society doesn’t always come in to these discussions with as clear a consensus. It can be a messy process.

Ed.: You say that “analysing the infrastructure of public participation makes it possible to examine the functions of Internet governance processes at a deeper level.” Having done so, are you hopeful or cynical about “Internet governance” as it is currently done?

Sarah: I’m hopeful about the attentiveness to public inclusion exhibited at NETmundial—it really was a central part of the process and the organisers made a number of investments in ensuring it was as broadly accessible as possible. That said, I’m a bit critical of whether building technological infrastructure for inclusion on its own can overcome the real resource imbalances that effect who can participate in these kinds of forums. It’s probably going to require investments in both—there’s a danger that by focusing on the appearance of being democratic, these discussions can mask the underlying power discrepancies that inhibit deliberation on an even playing field.

Read the full article: West, S.M. (2017) Searching for the Public in Internet Governance: Examining Infrastructures of Participation at NETmundial. Policy & Internet 9 (2). doi:10.1002/poi3.143

Sarah Myers West was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.