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Multi-Stakeholderism and the 'Coalition of the Willing'

Byron Holland

I was part of a group of about 200 people who attended and update at the Internet Governance Forum in Bali on the Montevideo statement. I'd like to share a few of my observations, and offer some unsolicited advice.
First, the de facto leader of the and champion of the multi-stakeholder model, the United States, has been sent to the penalty box in light of the NSA surveillance revelations. I made this point when the Snowden affair first came to light, and it's now tremendously apparent at the IGF that any and all credibility the Americans had in defending the multi-stakeholder model has vanished (at least for the time being).

That's left us — the defenders of the multi-stakeholder model — in a bit of a leadership vacuum at critical time in the Internet's history. We are, after all, staring down the ITU's Plenipotentiary meeting in November 2014. We well remember the ITU's World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai last December.

The last thing the Internet community wants or needs is a repeat of the discussions at the WCIT — the division between the supporters of the multi-stakeholder model and its detractors became both deeper and wider. There were times when many of us were genuinely concerned about the fate of the free and open Internet during the WCIT — the multi-stakeholder model was pushed to the very edge of its survival and fortunately brought back. The telecommunications world is about to head into similar discussions at the Plenipot — this is not a time where you want to be without your strongest champion and leader.

But here we are.

Fortunately, the I* group (ICANN, the RIRs, IETF, IAB, W3C and ISOC) were able to pick up the ball that had been fumbled by the U.S. government and are attempting to fill that vacuum. While I applaud their resourcefulness, I do see a number of challenges they will have to overcome to be successful.
WARNING: as a Canadian, non-hockey sports metaphors are tough. If I mangle this one, I can't be held responsible.

The I* group, and Fadi Chehadé in particular, have picked up and carried that metaphorical ball down the field. A tight group of CEOs has been leading the charge so far, without much in the way of broader consultation. I get it. That's what we as CEOs are paid to do and he was right to do what he did. When presented with an opportunity like this, we have to analyze the risk and make a quick but informed decision, and the fact is things are happening very quickly.

However, their challenge will be engaging the broader community before it's too late. If the I* group misses that opportunity, they risk jeopardizing their credibility to lead the community going forward. It would be akin to advocating for the multi-stakeholder model in a non-multi-stakeholder manner. I can already hear the Internet governance conspiracy theorists and their refrain of ICANN overreach.

Simply put, the I* folks need to pass the ball off to the broader community before it's too late. It's not going to be easy, but multi-stakeholderism is a messy game. The sheer number and diversity of voices that come to the table — from the technical community to civil society to end users, governments, and many more — means that we will always be dealing with competing interests and challenges with meaningful engagement. But it is exactly that messy, at times turbulent chaos that makes the multi-stakeholder model work. At one time or another, all of those voices are critical to the success of the Internet.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that everybody needs to be a full participant in these discussions. That's not what multi-stakeholderism is about. Yes, all of those voices have a role to play, but not necessarily on every issue. Where and when appropriate, different voices come up to the surface and are included, but it is a very rare thing that all voices would be relevant on a particular issue. Those who aren't involved need to have trust in the processes and people if we are going to be successful. The right voices for this discussion need to be identified and included in pretty short order if we are to be successful.

Finally, while it's great we are discussing these issues, but we also need to be very pragmatic in our approach. The fact is there isn't a lot of time between now and the plenipot in 2014, and we've got a lot of work to do. If we are going to re-examine the structures and processes that have been governing the Internet for more than a decade, we need to be nothing short of strategic. And maybe it's my business background speaking, but I'd like to know what our end game is. That's the I* group's other challenge — to identify and articulate what we, as the Internet community, need to accomplish. Arenas like the Internet Governance Forum are often dismissed as mere talk shops. There is a shred of truth in that dismissal. We Internet governance folks are great at talking about issues, having meeting after meeting and extended requests for comments and the like.

We need answers to some fundamental questions before we get too far down this path:

What problem is the 'coalition of the willing' solving? How do we know when we've been successful? How are we going to get there?

My advice to the group is to move reasonably quickly from 'thinking' to 'doing.' Yes, the thinking is a critical part of the process, but let's not get caught up in it. The first step, in my opinion, will be to develop a crisp, realistic goal. At yesterday's briefing, Chris Disspain articulated what I believe is a good first step towards articulating an objective for this emerging group:

"Working together in a coalition to offer the world a multi-stakeholder-based mechanism for dealing with Internet governance issues as a viable alternative to governments or government-centric mechanisms."

With some massaging, I think his statement could guide the group's work.

We're off to a good start — I'm hearing a lot of positive things about this process from the people at the IGF. I truly believe that the people who are leading this process have the best interest of the broader community at heart, and are committed to ensuring that the systems and structures are inclusive and responsive to their needs.

By Byron Holland, President and CEO of CIRA. More blog posts from Byron Holland can also be read here.

Related topics: Internet Governance, Policy & Regulation

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