In June 2020, the UN Secretary General António Guterres issued a  “Roadmap for Digital Cooperation” to provide a new mechanism for the governance of the Internet. (See also UN document A/74/821)

This document comes out of a contentious struggle in the UN over which sectors of society will have the power to influence decisions about the present and future management of the Internet. Yet, the Secretary General’s Roadmap neither referred to this background, nor mentioned any of the alternative models or visions for how the Internet is to be managed or how decisions are to be made about its future. Instead the document presented a vague proposal bestowing the power to influence the future of the Internet upon already powerful entities. The vague model being promoted by the UN Secretary General’s Roadmap is referred to as a “multistakeholder” model for Internet governance.

The Roadmap ignores the criticism of multistakeholderism while hiding the alternative perspectives which reflect a process more in-line with the democratic and participatory origin of the Internet and the original vision for its development.

Not only has the Secretary General suggested empowering multistakeholderism, which has been subjected to serious criticism and opposition, but this activity to influence the future of the Internet is being carried out in a camouflaged manner. The Roadmap ignores the criticism of multistakeholderism while hiding the alternative perspectives which reflect a process more in-line with the democratic and participatory origin of the Internet and the original vision for its development.

There has been an ongoing struggle over Internet governance at the United Nations for at least 15 years. Some pivotal events in this struggle include the two World Summits on the Information Society (WSIS) held by the UN in 2003 in Geneva and in 2005 in Tunis, along with the 2015 controversy surrounding the 10 year review of the progress toward the 2003 WSIS and 2005 WSIS goal to develop “a people-centered, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society”.

On one side of the controversy has been the desire of many UN Member States to have a shared form of governance in which all states are able to participate on an equal footing. This is known as a multilateral form of governance. Multilateralism is a founding principle of the UN inscribed in the UN Charter.

“Multilateralism” was the form of Internet governance favored by the developing countries represented by the G77 + China at the 2015 UN discussions to review the progress made in the 10 years since the 2005 WSIS. The Statement by the Chair of the Group of 77 explained  that “it is important to build a united, equal, open, transparent, fair and balanced platform which recognizes all governments on equal voice”.

The Secretary General’s Roadmap replaces a form of governance committed to the people-centered view put forward by the UN at WSIS events with multistakeholderism, a corporate-empowering governance model.

Briefly, the Roadmap proposed by the UN Secretary General promises to connect people around the world to the Internet and monitor the problems stemming from AI and other areas that may accompany Internet development.

In its essence, however, the Roadmap proposes creating a new means for governing the Internet. The proposed governance mechanism will be one that gives power to multistakeholders to decide the present and future of the Internet. This is referred to as multistakeholder governance.

Who are the “multistakeholders” and what is their “stake” in the decisions they are to help determine?

In an article about whether multistakeholderism could be a means of democratizing the decision-making processes about the Internet, Michael Gurstein, a Canadian Internet activist, explained why multi-stakeholderism is not a democratic form of governance. (See Democracy OR Multi-stakeholderism: Competing Models of Governance.) It is a form, Gurstein wrote, “where governance is by and for those with a ‘stake’ in the governance decision thus shifting the basis of governance from one based on people and (at least indirectly) citizenship or participation in the broad community of the governed to one based on ‘stakes’.” That is, multistakeholderism empowers those with a narrow interest in a particular course of action, not those with the ability to contribute to determining the public interest.

Multistakeholderism empowers those with a narrow interest in a particular course of action, not those with the ability to contribute to determining the public interest.

Moreover, as an Internet pioneer from China, Madame Hu Qiheng explains, the public interest needs to be protected with respect to Internet development. She writes (page 1) that “The Internet is a resplendent achievement of human civilization in the 20th century. And that government has to play the essential role in Internet governance…creating a favorable environment boosting Internet growth while protecting the public interest.”

However, protecting the public interest is all but gone from the Secretary General’s Roadmap.

The Roadmap erases the long controversy around the appropriateness of multilateral versus multistakeholder forms of Internet governance from the historical record instead of clarifying the different perspectives. The Roadmap also pretends that every member of the UN agrees that the so called multistakeholders should have a say in the Internet‘s future development.

Despite many criticisms of a multistakeholder form of governance, in July 2018 the UN Secretary General appointed Melinda Gates and Jack Ma as co-chairs of what was claimed to be a high-level panel “to consider models…to advance the debate surrounding governance in the digital sphere”. Instead of advancing the public debate by summarizing the strengths and weaknesses of previous discussion at the UN over different models for Internet governance, they created a vague document stating a preference for  “a multistakeholder ‘systems’ approach that is…a fit-for-purpose for the fast-changing digital age.” (See Executive Summary, Report of the UN Secretary General’s  High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation Recommendation 5B).

Similarly, the UN published a document called the Recommendation 5A/B: Options for the Future of Global Digital Cooperation (here after Options Report), which calls for the creation of a leadership group “…which would feature multistakeholder representation (including business leaders and academia)…(who) would bring outcomes from their leadership group to decision leaders” (Options Report, p. 12).

The Options Report also calls for the improvement of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) design to strengthen corporate identity under the supervision of the IGF Secretariat. (Options Report,  p. 15). The IGF was created in 2005 at the close of the WSIS in Tunis as a discussion and consultative body. The Options Report proposes adding to the IGF a leadership group with the participation of the UN Secretary General and the UN’s host country’s Head of State or Government. (Options Report, p. 3)

One might ask why the UN Secretary General, who is the administrative head in an organization built on multilateralism, is erasing the public record about the important issues raised in the debate between multilateralism and multistakeholderism as forms of governance to be supported by the UN for Internet development.

In order to understand this enigma, it is helpful to consider a document signed on behalf of the UN Secretary General in June 2019 — agreeing to a partnership agreement between the UN and the World Economic Forum (WEF).

An open letter signed by 400 NGOs opposing this partnership and asking the UN to withdraw from it was sent to the UN Secretary General.

The NGOs letter argued that “This public-private partnership will permanently associate the UN with transnational corporations, some of whose core essential activities have caused or worsened the social and environmental crises that the planet faces. This is a form of corporate capture…The WEF agreement with the UN….seriously undermine[s] the mandate of the UN as well as the independence, impartiality and effectiveness of this multilateral body”.

Disregarding the arguments made by the NGOs and the position on the question taken by the G77+ China, the Secretary General has launched the elaborate Roadmap for Digital Cooperation as one of the six areas in the UN-WEF partnership agreement.

The netizen model sees a role for citizens and netizens to participate in determining what the decisions will be. This model points to the capacity of the Internet to support participatory democracy.

In the debate at the UN over the future of Internet governance in the past, there has been a third model which has also been left out of the Roadmap. This model emphasizes the need for netizens to have a role in Internet governance. The netizen model differs in part with those who argue for governments to have the central role in decisions affecting their citizens. The netizen model sees a role for citizens and netizens to participate in determining what the decisions will be. This model points to the capacity of the Internet to support participatory democracy. As one of the participants in an online portal created by the UN leading up to the 2005 WSIS wrote:

“This on-line forum constitutes an important part of mobilizing efforts for the pursued effective outcome. But in view of the wide-ranging aspects that Internet Governance covers, I believe it is duly important to make it clearer the inclusion of on-line contributions into the decision-making process.”

During 2020, when the UN celebrated its 75th founding anniversary, many voices argued that it is more urgent than ever to support and strengthen multilateralism. This was especially the sentiment voiced by many of the 193 UN Member States during the September 21, 2020 virtual session in celebration of the 75th Anniversary of the Charter.

The goal of a “people centered, inclusive and development oriented Information Society” is a goal consistent with the multilateral and netizen models for Internet governance. This was the goal put forward by the UN at their 2003 and 2005 World Summit meetings. Yet the goal was ignored by the high level panel for digital cooperation in putting forward their recommendations and it was ignored in the creation of the Secretary General’s Roadmap.  Hence, it is a violation of obligations for UN Secretary General António Guterres to promote a multistakeholder model of Internet governance rather than defending multilateralism and encouraging citizen and netizen participation in the decisions related to continuing and future Internet development.

An earlier version of this article was published in Telepolis.