What is the foundation of social citizenship in the twenty-first century? An empirical reading of popular discourse would suggest it is the oft-repeated dogma of multistakeholderism (MSism). What is MSism, and what does it have to do with Big Tech capitalism?
In the mainstream digital discourse, the idea of ‘stake’ goes back to the successful model on which the internet was built and managed in the early days by governments, the private sector, the technical and academic community, and civil society. Proponents of MSism believe that a whole range of issues confronting modern polity can be solved without the conventional rigmarole of democracy, through a process based on an ‘interest’ in the domain to which the governance apparatus is being applied. Interest-based stakes comprise a simplistic, apolitical device of ensuring an outcome consistent with one’s values (professional, technical, or financial). They shift the compass from citizenship in the community of the governed – rooted in a political-normative consensus about civic-public interest – to a post-democratic notion of voice and participation.
Attractive for its misleading innuendo of direct participation, MSism successfully conjures up a persuasive, but false, argument of equal footing. It hides the workings of power, reducing norms development processes to everyone-in-the-same-room decision-making. The governance decisions made through such a process cannot be construed as being made by the governed, “except in the trivial sense that since those stakeholder groups also consist of people, all decisions would of course all be made by ‘people’ whatever their (temporary) stakeholder status”, as Michael Gurstein, scholar-activist on digital justice, notes.
The DNA of the digital world is multistakeholder. It is a world where big corporations and powerful Northern governments have normalized the role of the private sector in determining the normative directions of humanity’s technological progress. The Okinawa Charter on the Global Information Society adopted by G8 Leaders in 2000 – which, in many ways, framed the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) discourse – cautioned against “undue regulatory interventions that would hinder productive private-sector initiatives in creating an IT-friendly environment”.
The DNA of the digital world is multistakeholder. It is a world where big corporations and powerful Northern governments have normalized the role of the private sector in determining the normative directions of humanity’s technological progress.
The sentiment that the private sector is the natural leader in technology with the prerogative to shape digital destinies of people is, therefore, deeply embedded in the digital policy discourse. The multistakeholder Alliance for Affordable Internet – with Google, Microsoft, Meta/Facebook, Intel, the United States Agency for International Development (US AID), UN Women, and many others – was ostensibly set up for ‘affordable access’ in 2013. However, it was clearly motivated by the primacy of market interests and neoliberal prescriptions for connectivity policies. Today, the commanding perch in the global fault lines of knowledge and power give digital barons the supreme might to frame policies in other sectors – pharmaceutical, education, health, transport, finance, etc. They are the key orchestrators of everyday social mores and the architects of contemporary public spheres.
Two decades after the WSIS, with runaway digital capitalism clearly at the root of unimaginable social and planetary crises, MSism in the policy rhetoric has undergone several mutations, creatively accommodating Big Tech-led rules as de facto governance practices in the digital space. More recently, the visible excesses of Big Tech may have seen powerful countries move towards regulation of the digital economy in their jurisdictions in the name of ethics and human rights. But in a world where data and AI must be tightly controlled for geo-political and -economic advantage, the unjust institutional order of global digital democracy is left untouched. The 2019 OECD principles on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the G7’s 2021 digital trade and data principles show how the big powers have unabashedly hijacked global policy making and normative standards-setting processes on data and AI. In this rapidly moving landscape, Big Tech’s place is firmly secured not only in trade deals that ensure the free one-way flow of data from developing countries into Northern corporate enclosures, but also in ‘inclusive multistakeholder partnerships’ catalyzed by international institutions, Northern governments, and private philanthropies to build data and AI infrastructures in developing countries.
Digital Multilateralism in the Multistakeholder Era
Underpinning the dogma of MSism as the ideal type governance approach, is the unshackled and boundless power of Big Tech, and a failure of the highly fragmented multilateral system to privilege norms-building for equality, dignity, and justice in a world that digital technologies define and reorder. The UN Secretary General’s (UNSG) latest report – Our Common Agenda (OCA) – rightly identifies that the governance of the internet is dominated by commercial interests, and that large technology companies have emerged as geo-political actors and arbiters of difficult social questions without responsibilities commensurate with their out-sized profits. Yet, in sharp irony, and despite the exhortation for multilateral digital cooperation, the UNSG’s recommendations fall back on MSism, calling for a multistakeholder process towards a Global Digital Compact. Outlining the rather ominous contours of such a future compact, the OCA Report scuttles the question of how technology companies will be reined in, and what sort of global democratic governance can save the global digital commons from unbridled commercial interests. Instead, it breezily asserts that the governance of global public goods does not require new institutions, sliding into a paradoxical prescription for more of the same:
“We need new resolve and ways of working together (emphasis added) that are suited to the challenges we face and the diverse landscape of actors (public, civic and private) that have the capacity to contribute to solutions.”
Such is the hold of Big Tech over the policy space, that the UNSG’s vision for global digital cooperation owes its inspiration to the High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation he established in 2018 with the icons of digital capitalism/philanthro-capitalism – Jack Ma and Melinda Gates – as co-chairs. Predictably, albeit unfortunately, the UNSG’s Report on Global Digital Cooperation shows little regard for the WSIS mandate for multilateral cooperation on global digital policies.
The ideology of MSism in the digital realm presents a TINA (there is no alternative) predicament. It recasts questions about the future economy and society, in which the digital is a central building block, as post-democratic concerns that can somehow be dealt with either through voluntary ethical standards of platform firms or a compact among unequals. It perpetuates the status quo in which the economic power derived from data and AI – concentrated in the hands of a few corporations – are siloed out of the global governance question.
The delivery of digital public goods through multistakeholder partnerships has unleashed great harm – hollowing out the public sector, transferring control of public data systems to opportunistic private entities, foreclosing local accountability for data and algorithms, and disregarding the human rights of citizens.
A tremendous urgency confronts us in the task of restoring democratic values into global digital governance. MSism is antithetical to public engagement and disclosure (operating as it does in closed clubs and enclaves), eroding hard won rights of civil society in the international inter-governmental arena. The delivery of digital public goods through multistakeholder partnerships has unleashed great harm – hollowing out the public sector, transferring control of public data systems to opportunistic private entities, foreclosing local accountability for data and algorithms, and disregarding the human rights of citizens. The ID2020 Alliance’s vaccination program in Bangladesh doubled up as an enrollment drive for a digital identity program completely outside of the due process of law.
New digital architectures of corporate controlled platform and AI ecosystems can also alter the democratic character of hitherto public and common regimes. The undermining of the public value of education in the ed-tech race is a pertinent case in point. With the Covid pandemic presenting a new opportunism for remote learning, multistakeholder initiatives such as the Global Education Coalition and Save Our Future were launched in 2020 as platforms for collaboration and exchange to supposedly protect the right to education, support distance learning and mobilize resources. The appropriation by the bioeconomy of genome data through the WEF-initiated Earth Bank of Codes is another such instance of extractive appropriation. These examples show the perverse confluence of corporate-controlled digitalization and de-commonification.
How Do We Reclaim a Global Digital Constitutionalism?
Global constitutionalism today is in a deadlock, unable to deliver on social equity, justice, dignity, and rights precisely because of a fragmentation of multilateral institutions and their mandates, and a separation of distributive justice from human rights. International law that seeks to keep us knit together as a global community has long served the political-economic interests of rich countries and transnational corporations who operate with impunity. This is not a case against a shared values for our common future, but a justification for a people-centric multilateralism – one in which normative directions are led through new, ambitious proposals for repoliticizing global governance and democratizing voice, from the standpoint of equity, justice, peace, and planetary sustainability.
The urgency to be connected into and keep pace with a platformizing world is presented today as an easy threshold to cross – one that will bring millions their social citizenship in a connected universe, if only they can be data-ready subjects of the market. Most countries in the Global South are scrambling to grasp the elusive frontiers of a hyped-up AI future, succumbing to highly valorized public-private partnerships for building national digital infrastructures. Expertise and capacity-building initiatives are easy channels through which people’s data is poised to flow out into proprietized AI-based knowledge systems that the big powers are vying for.
Cooperation as technocratic solutionism – essentially a consumer-user paradigm shaped through a liberal data rights regime pegged to individualized consent – does nothing to change the rapacious structures of data extractivism. It co-opts aspirations for social citizenship into networks unhinged from political claims.
The WEF’s latest Global Risks Report expands the geographies of planetary vulnerability – pointing to an interconnected risk environment straddling earth, space, and the meta-verse, and signaling an urgency for global governance of the digital commons. Harmful content that impairs women’s safety online will be more graphic, 3D, and likely feel more intrusive due to the multi-sensory nature of the meta-verse environment. The rise of virtual currencies presents a never-before governance challenge. For example, it has been documented that kids are using their avatars to provide lap dances in virtual strip clubs in return for the virtual currency, ‘Robux’. Cryptocurrencies are a popular option for those purchasing Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM), as their decentralized control and independence from financial institutions also ensure anonymity, according to a report by ActiveFence.
‘Stakeholder capitalism’ – the WEF’s brand new preoccupation and prescription – cannot measure up to these complexities. Rather, the writing on the wall clearly points to an even bigger, more urgent, need for global governance than we thought. Stakeholder cooperation without political accountability is only likely to push our shared human future further into the quagmire of governance failure – displacing obligations of powerful actors into dubious frameworks of philanthropy and largess.
The idea of a UN 2.0 presented in the OCA Report is undoubtedly necessary. But this shift needs to encompass a bold re-imagination of global democracy. The Report’s unequivocal endorsement of MSism – including through proposed multistakeholder dialogues on outer space and the Global Digital Compact; a proposed Summit for the Future; and a suggestion to shifting the Commission on Women to a multistakeholder format – portends a slippery slope that will further weaken multilateralism. Multi-constituency networks, partnerships and collaborations cannot replace governance arrangements based on political legitimacy.
The digital locks in the national with the supra-national, the individual with the societal, the economy with ecology. Local livelihood and food sovereignty today is directly linked to digitalization of agriculture; the fate of small traders and enterprises to e-commerce and algorithmic regulation; women’s right to voice and public participation to social media governance; and public health to how data policies intersect with extant global regimes in trade, health, and biodiversity.
Each domain represents a governance challenge in its own right, but the real challenge is how institutions of global governance in the digital epoch will measure up to a whole-of-people-and-planet approach. Discussions for a proposed UN Cybercrime Treaty are on the anvil and civil society actors have strongly underlined the need for being included in the process. However, human security also depends on effective global rules for non-military threats (see report by FOGGs here), which must account for the interconnected risks of hybrid, offline-online existence.
The OCA Report may have dismissed the need for new global institutions to rescue the digital commons. But the UNCTAD, in its Digital Economy Report (2021), is more circumspect, concluding that: “Existing institutional frameworks at the international level are not fit for purpose to address the specific characteristics and needs of global data governance… (A) new global institutional framework is most likely needed.”
In 1987, the Brundtland Commission’s Report, Our Common Future, on Environment and Development, flagged the fragmented institutional arrangement in multilateral governance as the biggest challenge to the integrated and interdependent nature of the issues faced by humanity. The report poignantly summarizes how it is no longer “credible to get a handle of global crises without asking tough questions about the functioning of globalization and its key institutional actors, transnational corporations. Avoiding these realities will not get us a set of institutions fit for the future.”
The technologies of the twenty first century are not only part of the problem, but also key constituents of an appropriate and emancipatory response, one that can create possibilities for people’s participation in keeping the multilateral system accountable and in co-shaping its values and norms.
More than three decades since, the Covid-19 pandemic has proven beyond doubt that we need a holistic response to problems, even as the institutional crisis in multilateral democratic governance deepens. There is one difference though. The technologies of the twenty first century are not only part of the problem, but also key constituents of an appropriate and emancipatory response, one that can create possibilities for people’s participation in keeping the multilateral system accountable and in co-shaping its values and norms. However, as the People’s Working Group on Multistakeholderism asserts, this cannot be done unless the mechanisms of multistakeholderization, whereby the private sector rules, with the support of some states, international institutions and big philanthropists, are tackled systemically.
At this historic conjuncture, our common future depends on taking the transnational corporation, and its digital avatar, firmly by the horns, and strengthening the multilateral system towards a peaceful and prosperous collective future for all. This is the common agenda we must work for.