Multi-Stakeholderism: The Internet Governance Challenge to Democracy

By Denardis, Laura | Harvard International Review, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Multi-Stakeholderism: The Internet Governance Challenge to Democracy


Denardis, Laura, Harvard International Review


On December 5, 2012, the US Congress unanimously passed a resolution with an extraordinary 397-0 vote calling for US opposition to government control of the Internet and the preservation of a multi-stakeholder model of Internet governance. The bipartisan resolution was responding to global proposals surrounding a 2012 Dubai gathering known as the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). The event was convened by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN specialized agency for information and communication technologies, to review the International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs), a global treaty adopted in 1988 to establish guidelines for how telecommunications operators exchange traffic across national borders.

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One of the more controversial proposals circulating in advance of the Dubai meeting, but which did not make it into the revised ITRs, emanated from an association of European telecommunication operators raising the prospect of "sending party network pays" in international interconnection. In traditional voice communication, the payment burden rests primarily with the originating caller and network. Extending this model to the Internet would potentially create an economic transformation amounting to a charge on content companies such as Google every time a user chooses to download a YouTube video. This type of regulatory and pricing burden on content providers would have democratic implications because it would potentially create economic disincentives for new content companies and innovations and also fragment the Internet if content companies opted to avoid these payments by withdrawing their content in parts of the world imposing fees. A separate proposal from Russia, China, and several Arab nations asserted the sovereign right of UN Member States to establish international policy in the realm of Internet governance.

Against a backdrop of hyperbolic media reports about the UN trying to "take over the Internet" and after two weeks of contentious deliberations, the conference ended with nations divided about whether they would sign a revised treaty. While the circumstances surrounding this epoch were technically and institutionally complex and shaped by a protracted history of global Internet governance tensions, the United States and many other advanced economies ultimately refused to sign the treaty because they objected to the inclusion of any language about the Internet, even as part of a non-binding resolution. These countries believed that the scope of the treaty, or even future discussions, should not be expanded to include Internet architecture or content but remain more narrowly tailored to telecommunications interconnection. The global controversy over this treaty provides a moment of opportunity to address the implications of Internet governance methods and structures for democracy.

Twenty-first century conflicts over Internet governance are increasingly proxies for global political struggles. The same technologies creating new potentialities for citizen engagement and global access to knowledge are providing governments with extraordinary opportunities for censorship and surveillance. At the most extreme level, repressive nation states unable to influence the flow of citizen information by traditional means have turned to infrastructure control systems to terminate communication networks during political uprisings. For example, a prolonged late-2012 Internet blackout in Syria reportedly curtailed the ability of citizens to coordinate political action internally or disseminate information to the outside world via Internet videos or blogs about government atrocities.

Countries Limiting Internet Information

Belarus  Cuba     Maldives     Saudi Arabia  Turkmenistan
Burma    Iran     Nepal        Syria         Uzbekistan
China    Libya    North Korea  Tunisia       Vietnam

Reporters Without Borders

Internet governance is enacted by private corporations and new global institutions as much as nation states. …

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