Has the multi-stakeholder model failed us?

Not the stakeholder that you were thinking of

This is not the stakeholder you were thinking of

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has held its 50th meeting in London this week. ICANN is one of the bodies that play an important role in running that decentralised, disconnected mishmash of networks that we call the Internet. ICANN is in charge of some of the main functions of the domain name system, which allows computers to translate between a domain name and the IP address where it is located.

ICANN is one of the main examples of the multi-stakeholder model. ICANN defines the model like this:

“A Multistakeholder Model is an organizational framework or structure which adopts the multistakeholder process of governance or policy making, which aims to bring together the primary stakeholders such as businesses, civil society, governments, research institutions and non-government organizations to cooperate and participate in the dialogue, decision making and implementation of solutions to common problems or goals. A stakeholder refers to an individual, group or organization that has a direct or indirect interest or stake in a particular organization; that is, a given action has the ability to influence the organization’s actions, decisions and policies to achieve results.”

Sounds fantastic, a manner of governance that brings together all interested parties to the table and gives them a say in the manner in which the Internet is run. What could possibly go wrong?

Not much if you buy into the official story, but for a while I have been worried that the model was setup to create the pretence of openness, while in the background the real control was exercised elsewhere hiding behind the curtain of multistakeholderism. The Snowden revelations showed us that this cynical view was closer to reality than we would otherwise had thought, as we discovered that while millions upon millions were spent on the massive display of transparency, the cables were being tapped, the protocols compromised, and the hardware riddled with back doors.

To be fair, ICANN has been making an attempt to ensure that the multi-stakeholder model can deliver, as evidenced by the organisation of the Net Mundial conference recently. But I fear that this may just be an attempt to more window dressing, while nothing really will change and we will continue to have a centralised Internet where a few key operators hold most of the control. The fact that Vint Cerf got up in front of the audiences at Net Mundial and asserted that the fabled IS control of the Internet is a myth tells us that some people have not been paying attention, or perhaps they want to ensure that things do not change.

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