Myth #08: The Internet has always run on multistakeholder approaches.
Roxana Radu

Myth: The decentralized nature of the Internet requires the involvement of various stakeholder groups, such as governments, the industry and civil society. Unlike other policy fields in which intergovernmental approaches dominate, the Internet has, from the outset, been synonymous with multistakeholder governance, offering a seat at the table to all those interested.


Busted: Many accounts of Internet governance uphold its multistakeholder nature as an early achievement, allowing governments, businesses, technical community, academia and civil society to participate in decision-making, whether in consultative roles or as part of collaborative rule-creation efforts. However, the decisions that led to the funding, creation and privatization of the Internet were not the result of multistakeholder processes: they were unilaterally put forward by the US government. Currently ruled by more than 300 authoritative instruments at the global and regional level (and many more at the national level), the Internet is governed through various mechanisms, many of which are exclusively government- or industry-driven.

Frequently contrasted with the intergovernmental model traditionally applied to regulating telecommunications, the multistakeholder approach is widely perceived as the best way to govern the Internet, reflecting certain dynamics set in place by the technical community in the early days of the network. In practice, multistakeholderism is best understood, since its emergence in the mid-1990s, as an anchoring practice of the community. The involvement of representatives belonging to various sectors was prominently practiced during the negotiations around the management of the domain name system (DNS), previously ran singlehandedly by an academic at Stanford University (Jon Postel). In 1998, based on the top-down guidance of the US Department of Commerce implemented via multistakeholder discussions, a new non-for-profit organization was established to perform that function: ICANN. Subsequently, many other organizations started adopting multistakeholder practices and celebrating the broad range of interests they catered for.

Over time, multistakeholderism acquired a strong normative grounding, claiming a distinctive character. Its cross-sector integration in certain activities of intergovernmental bodies, as well as in the work of standard-setting bodies, is a case in point. Its many different forms and shapes (Raymond and DeNardis 2015) have evolved and been institutionalized to a large degree. Beyond the rhetoric, the multistakeholder Internet governance remains ideologically-laden and hides significant power inequalities among stakeholder groups. The promise of participation on an equal footing contrasts sharply with the practice of engagement that privileges the interests of a few and serves to legitimize the decisions of instrumental actors. Institutionally, an approach based on ‘respective roles and responsibilities’ was formally sanctioned in the outcome document of the UN Summit on Information Society held in 2005 and reiterated during its decennial review (WSIS+10). Other global meetings, such as the annual Internet Governance Forum or the 2014 NETMundial, have since proposed procedural improvements.


Truth: Multistakeholderism is a dominant practice adopted by the Internet governance community in the 1990s. Despite its wide appeal, the main Internet policy decisions and the global, regional and national rules that guide its evolution are rarely the result of multistakeholder processes that live up to the rhetoric of engaging government, industry and civil society on an equal footing.


Source: Roxana Radu, Negotiating Internet Governance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019); Mark Raymond and Laura DeNardis, Multistakeholderism: Anatomy of an Inchoate Global Institution, International Theory 7 (2015) 3, 572– 616.