The challenge – how to govern a global commons in ways that are effective and legitimate, and how to design a process to improve governance.
We know that it’s …
• unsustainable to have power in the hands of a self-appointed group;
• illegitimate for the US to be in a uniquely powerful position;
• undesirable to have something like the Internet run by states;
• problematic to have excessive control in hands of a few corporations.
But the technical issues being faced by I* and the coming summits and gatherings are also bound to intersect with a more basic issue, that across the world the public think the Internet is theirs, it’s free, and it’s open, while in fact the truth is none of these is guaranteed.
So the technical governance question (how to design systems that are effective and legitimate) is hard to separate from the bigger question of mission and values. And it’s possible that the best solutions will also combine mission and technical answers that align the governance better with these underlying principles.
It’s likely that any good answers will involve the four estates that are unavoidably involved in governance of internet. These can’t accurately be described as nested, or concentric circles. Instead they represent distinct interests and points of view.
• Nation states
• Peoples – the users of the internet
• Businesses – the other group of users and providers
• Experts – the specialists who understand the key technical choices
The design challenge is therefore:
• how to represent each of these in ways that make sense to their communities, and…
• how to balance their powers to achieve compromise , while not impeding the ability to make effective decisions
Nations The existing ITU/UN frameworks provide some ways of representing nations. But other options include analogies to the Security Council or G20, smaller bodies that can bring together the lion’s share of internet activity nested under the larger fully representative assembly. For example revolving chair roles from the 10 top internet-using nations.
Peoples Here the radical option is to offer the option of membership, or even ownership of parts of the web. The old UNA provides an analogy – a mass membership invited to act as guardians of a set of global common values, to protect against abuse. A mass membership internet guardians group might work best with combination of consumer protection on privacy etc with the policy issues. Clearly to work well it would need some: rules of membership – eg to avoid any one country becoming too dominant or gaming; some limits of proportions – eg a log principle of representation to protect small countries against large; … all governed by the fundamental idea back to TBL – it’s for everyone .
Experts There are now many models for large scale expert coordination in global governance, with the IPCC as probably the most sophisticated since it includes an explicit futures aspect, making visible some of the implications of decisions and allowing these to be reflected back. ITU, W3C, the I* members and others provide some of the infrastructure, but inevitably some parts are dominated by big business and big government. This is what IPCC has partly avoided by being more explicitly founded on expertise and models.
Business The stakes in internet governance are now huge, and raise issues about both voice for dominant incumbent businesses; voice for insurgents; and the duties of major businesses in paying for the ecology of regulation and standards. The key missing element from so much business engagement in governance in other sectors is transparency – requirements for explicit statements of position; open challenge; mediation where facts are involved.
Although any governance designs require a formal place at the table for all the major stakeholders …
The big lesson of good governance is that successful systems always combine formal and informal elements – bottom up and top down. Just looking at the formal mechanisms risks missing the point. Instead we need to think in terms of hybrids, in which the formal organograms of institutions and committees sit nested within looser networks, media, civil society, sometimes bringing these networks closer into decision making.
This may further reinforce the importance of mobilising the citizens and users in more effective ways – with powers to engage, comment, and sometimes to obstruct change.
Seen through their eyes the calls for some kind of civilian legal guarantees – against abuses of privacy whether by states or businesses – become more legitimate.
So do more explicit principles to be pursued by international organisations (could we imagine an Internet equivalent to the ‘responsibility to protect’ for example, with the protection here being of privacy, expression/communication and access)?
To develop new governance models all experience suggests the need to go through a series of phases – rather than jumping straight to ideal solutions or technologies. Unfortunately the typical models of multi-stakeholder engagement and large consultative conferences are not well designed for doing this.
But strong processes should include:
• Framing – how to define the key questions, frames and capture the variety of perspective which will be relevant
• Issue identification – how to define the specific issues/questions that arise
• Idea generation –multiplying options and quick methods for narrowing down
• Idea commentary and improvement – slower more deliberative processes for refining
• Decision-making – institutions or decisionmakers explicitly engaging with the process (ideally having been involved earlier on as well)
• Co-implementation – of both formal and informal actors
• Scrutiny and feedback – what is and isn’t working
• … and then a loop back to the beginning for an iterative process of adaptation
The usual error of most open processes is to skip over the first stages; to follow groupthink in framing; to fetishise specific policy ideas before achieving understanding of the problems and the frames; to involve the real holders of power and knowledge too late; to conceive of the process as a one-off rather than continuous.
So perhaps what ICANN needs to do is simultaneously to widen the scope of the questions to the bigger issues of internet guardianship; to then break these down into component elements; and only then move onto idea generation and development.