Challenges for the multistakeholder model of Internet Governance: "forum-shopping" for public policy interests in technical fora

2019-04-10 Blog

During its GA61 in Bordeaux, France, the CENTR community was invited to reflect on the on-going trend that can be observed in Internet Governance and its respective technical community: it seems that technical discussions are increasingly being "hijacked" by public policy interests that have traditionally been reserved for governments to pursue, such as human rights discourse and law enforcement needs. The panellists, who represent different corners of the technical community, were asked to reflect on whether this trend can be considered problematic and whether the technical community should or could do something about it, to enforce the true nature of the multistakeholder model of Internet Governance.

The multistakeholder model is based on the premise that all interested parties around the table are on an equal footing. Internet Governance has been discussed and shaped in the spirit of multistakeholderism, where different stakeholders are invited to raise their concerns and follow their interests when shaping the way the internet works or should work in the future. However, the decentralised nature of the internet is also reflected in the diversity of the fora where these issues are discussed: ICANN, RIPE NCC, IETF are just a few examples.

The fact that these fora are seemingly open to all and everybody, at least in principle, has made it difficult for public policy interests to get through. Governments and law enforcement authorities are struggling to get their agendas through in the lengthy policy-development processes. The openness is not as straightforward as it seems. When one forum has been deemed to be fruitless, a window of opportunity opens in another. As a result, technical standardisation bodies like the IETF are increasingly attempting to implement public policy goals in technology. Notions like "privacy by design" that are codified in law are in essence left to be interpreted and implemented by engineers and their "coding" when developing technology. In addition to the increasing regulatory pressure on private actors to balance human rights and fundamental freedoms, together with undiversified technical fora that is flooded with engineers working for the Big Tech, one is left to wonder whether these fora are adequate places to balance values that are bigger than "code"?

"So should we have a role in choosing this code, if this code will choose our values?", Lawrence Lessig asked in 2000 in his widely-cited "Code is Law" essay. Then, Lessig argued that similar checks-and-balances should also follow the market's self-regulation, meaning that when code dictates our values, the same public scrutiny should be exercised over the "coders" as they essentially take over a (traditionally) governmental role.

Twenty years later, adequate oversight over policy-making is needed more than ever. We, as a technical community, have a responsibility to take part in these discussions, exchange intelligence and be aware of where and when these policy-decisions are made. Technical operators have a responsibility to explain how the internet works to decision-makers inside and outside the multistakeholder model, to ensure fact-based and data-driven decisions. This way we can make sure that we engage in fair and balanced discussions, when it comes to policies that affect the internet ecosystem.

By Polina Malaja, CENTR's Policy Advisor