THE MYTH OF THE GLOBAL INTERNET
ECREA Symposium-VLB October 1Oth 2007
Françoise Massit-Folléa (University of Lyon, Ecole Normale Supérieure Lettres et Sciences
humaines, scientific coordinator of the Vox Internet Program)
Amar Lakel (CEMIC –GRECO, University Michel de Montaigne in Bordeaux, associate
researcher to the Vox Internet Program)
Internet Governance, between Global Infrastructure and Multistakeholderism
The late WSIS promoted a multistakeholder political approach to Information Society,
gathering governments, economic players, and civil society. Unless there is a long tradition of
relationship between UN and NGOs, it was the first UN Summit to include the so-called Civil
Society in the preparation and output of such an international event.
We studied the e-mail messages of one of the WSIS caucuses, “civil society – internet
governance caucus”, on a key-period of the UN initiative. In analyzing the modalities of these
exchanges, we looked to see what kind of tactics and strategies would emerge and ascertain
the role they may have played in the public debate.
Looking back from the beginning of the WSIS process, and keeping attention on the Summit
followings, we intend to give some light on the notion of political partnership itself. What are
the conditions required to give Public Speech a real weight in a Global Environment ? Is it
possible to speak in the name of Internet Users as a whole ? Can we find here any way of
approaching a kind of a Global Democracy ? How does it change the pre-requisits in
representativeness, legitimacy and accountability ?
Finally, we analyze the limits of this political promise in an institutional context where States
and markets agreements (or desagreements) keep the final cut.
WSIS, Internet Governance, Civil Society, Multistakeholderism, Democracy.
The World Summit on the Information Society (Geneva 2003 – Tunis 2005) was an
interesting event for several reasons : first, the largest public multilateral organization dealt
with the newest global public-private communication infrastructure ; second, it occurred at a
time where many voices (at least amongst the academics) began to contest the expression of
“Information Society” as too much technological (UNESCO preferred the expression
“Knowledge Societies”) and too quickly globalized (like a unilateral perspective, born and
managed in the developed world) (Calabrese, 2006).
However, the WSIS was innovative compared to previous UN summits. Drawing on
the effects of deregulation and globalization, its process took into account the growing role of
non-State actors (for a history of the relationship between the UN and civil society,
Mobilizing on Information Society issues was part of a more general questioning on
the future of the world, characterized by large inequalities and deep controversies surrounding
possible solutions. Following the WSIS, the aim of promoting and developing the Internet as
a “common good” is both a distant horizon and a political challenge due to public policy
differences and to business competition.
Between the first and the second steps of the Summit, there was a focus on 2
challenges : funding for digital solidarity and internet governance. In the Tunis meeting, the
second one, Internet Governance, was the center of all debates and controversies. Introducing
the multistakeholder theory could make it “a laboratory for World Governance in Digital
I - What is the problem with Internet Governance ?
At the beginning, it refers to the core technological resources (allocations of IP
addresses and Domain Name System). They are managed by a non-profit private company,
ICANN, based in California and linked to the US Government - a Joint Agreement with the
Department of Commerce. Looking for a more open and equal technical management was the
first battle in WSIS. The protest against US mastery came both from emerging south-
countries (India, China, Brazil) and European Union. Europe made some shy proposals –
progressively cancelled as the process went along. The diplomatic debate came to no end –
except one more marginal reform inside ICANN … Consequently, in the technical internet
community, some experts worry about a possible fragmentation of Internet infrastructure if
the game keeps such biases (a Chinese or an Arabic close Internet system, for instance).
On the other side, people supporting development issues succeeded in questioning
public policies and pushing in the foreground ethical values and user-centered requisits. Big
NGOs (already UN partners in the CONGO gathering) “certainly do not exhaust the meaning
of civil society” (Calabrese, 2004), and new interest groups (named “caucuses” in the WSIS
vocabulary) joined their voices. Their involvment lead to the creation of the Internet
Governance Forum, to let the discussion go on till 2010. Before then, a lot of Action Lines on
specific issues are to be taken under the supervision of diverse UN agencies – in the wide
prospect of the Millenium goals.
Meanwhile, economical competition and globalization are bringing Google or Yahoo
in China and MIT open e-courses in deep Africa. Would the US private sector be the best
warrant of the global Internet?
II - The multistakeholder theory
According to the WGIG, a “working” definition for Internet Governance was adopted
in Tunis :
“Internet governance is the development and application by Governments,
the private sector and civil society, in their respective roles, of shared principles,
norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programmes that shape the
evolution and use of the Internet ».
It is a perfect image of the multistakeholderism concept, combining (abstract) good
wills and (vague) prescriptions. It reminds us of Olivier Borraz’s argument on “governance as
an un-political instrument”(2006).
Here is not the room for considering the growth and meanings of the “governance”
concept. Let’s say that the move from “government” to “governance” has led to a three-fold
public space. On the one hand Nation-States, and on the other businesses and “civil society”,
are composed of different “communities of interest”, but all are called upon to share their
views and negotiate in new deliberative open forums. This is the “multistakeholder” theory,
placed at the heart of post-modern institutional design. The benefits are expected to be a
tighter focus on innovation and the complexity of contemporary life - be it on a local, national
or international level. This could be achieved through an expansion of participation and a
recognition of the rights and capacities of all stakeholders.
This is then aimed at transforming the criteria of political representation and
The case of civil society involved in Internet governance issues at the WSIS appears
rather emblematic, in our view, of this claim for new political players, with its hopes and
constraints. We studied the electronic messages of this caucus from the release of the WGIG
Report to the opening of the Tunis Summit (Lakel & Massit-Folléa, 2007). What mainly
interests us today is to report on the sources and manifestations of their involvment, the way
they interact and the results they yield.
We shall address: firstly, the ambiguous conditions of their empowerment; then, the
questioning of multistakeholderism as a new political instrument. Behind the demands for
formal equality among the various stakeholders, and the promotion of civil society
participation, we actually note a persistent asymmetry in democratic resources – even
amongst the “new insiders” themselves.
III – Civil Society and Internet Governance at WSIS
1 – A dedicated caucus
The “Civil Society Internet Governance” caucus at WSIS gathered academics with
other kinds of experts whose cognitive resources in Internet issues are derived from
professional experience, long-term activism in NGOs, or pragmatic interests. The attention
given to the topic of “Internet governance” by such diverse interests and areas of knowledge,
both practical and theoretical, certainly contributed significantly to the broad definition of IG
ultimately adopted by the WSIS: a technical system to be managed and a set of public policy
issues to be governed.
As for the institutional framework, firstly, it is important to mention that asserting civil
society’s presence and voice in WSIS meetings and papers required a continuous struggle
over more than five years. But at the same time, inclusiveness was not any easier in the civil
society mobilization itself – even in the open mailing lists of the caucus. Speaking English,
for example, was a prerequisite for participation (unlike the trilingual education caucus…).
Furthermore, the place and location of the preparatory meetings surrounding the Geneva and
Tunis sessions made participation difficult for many people without public or private funding
(and this was the case for many people from low-income countries).
Using electronic devices could have prevented this kind of exclusion, but e-group
activism, although encouraged by web portals and mailing lists, could never rival real
As for the data, our study demonstrates that nearly 70% of the 2,000 selected e-mail
messages were mainly informative, and this was an important contribution to the
understanding of the WSIS process. However, a huge flow of information is not enough to
help share real knowledge and up to now, little attention has been paid to the semiotic content
and productive running of the mailing-lists (except, for the Geneva step, Padovani, 2004 and
Therefore, considering the output of the on-line and off-line discussions, we must
acknowledge that civil society intended, and was asked, to be involved in the political process
not only by giving advice but also by making contributions to the official statements. This
was the major promise and, in our opinion, the big failure of the entire WSIS process. The
civil society recognized that, entitling its statement concluding the Tunis Summit: “Much
more could have been achieved” We’ll now explain that view by analyzing legitimacy and
2 – Legitimacy and representativity
The sources of legitimacy can be both internal and external. According to Marc Raboy
(2004), we can say that “external legitimacy was given to civil society by the WSIS
organization itself”, but he recognizes that it is a “fragile legitimacy”. In the institutional
framework we mentioned, civil society had to fight to make its voice heard. Its input needed
to be mediated through meetings, dialogues and private contacts with governments delegates,
leaders of long-established NGOs, well-known Internet pioneers and UN officials.
Consequently, self-legitimation was the most frequent attitude for new insiders, combined
with the law of numbers. On the CS-Internet Governance mailing list, we found these words:
“Inclusiveness is not just a precondition for legitimacy, it’s a precondition for success”.
Legitimacy was generated also through expertise: by integrating into the debate
historical reminders of the early days of the Internet, good knowledge of the main players and
the mechanisms of technical Internet governance, regular production of sharp papers, and
surfing on the “general requirements” of human rights, some people became valuable
assistants in materializing the initial participatory objectives of the WSIS organization. In
addition, they could be integrated into the boards or advisory groups managing the process.
Their acceptance of the rules of the game constituted their strength.
The specialized network built through the Internet Governance caucus gave valuable
input to the debate. However, this occurred together with the appropriation by a few experts
of the benevolent contributions of all - cf our statistics.
Hence they can assess their legitimacy based on a certain kind of efficiency: for
instance, after the creation of the Internet Governance Forum that they had strongly
advocated, one of the leaders of the CS-IG caucus said: “In my opinion, this caucus as it is
today should be considered the backbone of the IGF”. Introducing and promoting its expertise
and allied network in the debate, the group successfully took its place in the public agenda.
Yet speaking of leaders and personal conquest of positions can seem rather inaccurate in a
UN context, in which the door was supposed to be largely open to civil society as a whole.
We must now focus on another democratic concept: representativity.
Civil society, compared to governmental or economic players, has – in theory –
infinite inclusive capacity. The permanent forum opened by the mailing lists would seek to
create a collective identity for this category of players, newly accepted as an equal partner in
an international summit (there was an accreditation process for attending the meetings, but not
for sending contributions to the Summit’s secretary). Maybe analyzing the plenary mailing
list of civil society could have led to different results, but in our study of the Internet
Governance caucus list, we found no clear construction of a “common sense” of the issue. On
the key topic of Internet Governance, there were some attempts to form a collective
production of opinion and writings, but no emergence of a consensus. No means for the “self-
construction” of civil society, but rather “a group of self-appointed people” (a quote from an
e-message). Not “a gathering of active and responsible individuals, but some kind of a new
organization” (again, a quote). As Jeannette Hoffman said in one of her papers (2005): « In a
way, civil society structures have to oscillate between different states of institutional
cohesiveness, between the quality of an open space and that of a well-organized actor among
A deep controversy remains unresolved: if civil society speaks in the name of “all
Internet users”, how was this mandate given? Then we have to consider the paradox of
democratization within civil society itself. An interesting approach is given by Soenke Zehle
(2006). He stresses the following point: “The way in which collective players accept or shy
away from the protocols conditioning access to international forums leads them to build a
subjectivity on the borders of institutional requests, representativity demands and claim for
autonomy”. He adds: “The question of democratizing civil society must be raised not only at
the level of the different organizations and their respective constituencies, but also at the level
of what constitutes these organizations into democratic players”. The paradox lies in the new
burden of responsibility that weighs on civil society when given legitimacy is higher than
3 – Multistakeholderism vs. democracy
With regard to our previous comments on legitimacy and representativity in civil
society, we can compare the multistakeholder political vision to three forms of democratic
renewal through e-groups.
The first form is the ancient one: direct democracy. For many people interested in
Internet governance, the WSIS’s intentions lead to an “impasse” because civil society was
less “people-centered” than organized around lobbies. One of them recently presented this
view: “Presumably, stakeholders represent individual and family interests, but it’s not
uncommon that people and organizations that declare themselves stakeholders, or
representatives of the stakeholder community, are self-appointed. I prefer to focus on the
ultimate beneficiaries of the system of Internet governance” (which is known as the end-user).
The second form is deliberative democracy. Examples of this include consensus
conferences or citizens juries. It presumes the public exchange of rational arguments between
peers. We share the assertion that “Communication doesn’t imply automatically deliberation”.
After several studies of diverse mailing lists, M.G. Suraud (2007) notes: “Formal equality in
speaking, when all participants can express their views, doesn’t create equality in keeping or
backing some opinions more than others. The important messages are those of the opinion
leaders, whose interventions on the real field are then monitored. So very often, the identity of
speakers, their role and place in the mobilization prevail over the contents of the discussion”.
The last form, participative democracy, is the most fashionable nowadays. Compared
to deliberative democracy, its implementation does not imply a high level of expertise and
rationality. The benefit sought is mainly the enlargement of voices. But, as G. Beauvallet
demonstrates (2007), the electronic collective exchange must reach a certain level of
“semiotic thickness”. It encompasses transparency in the objectives, online patterns for
presenting facts and arguments, and clear rules for opening or closing the debates.
We could not find any of these ideal forms in the study we conducted on the e-group
“Internet Governance Civil Society caucus”. Compared to direct democracy, the interests of
“end-users” were deliberately ignored – in favor of qualified expertise. Compared to
deliberative democracy, the sense of equality between the contributors and the rationale
discussion were obviously lacking. Compared to participative democracy, no communication
device was settled to build a common sense, to avoid exit or proprietary behaviors. Even in
the writing of caucus analyses or statements, the final draft was most often adopted outside of
On the functioning of the Internet Governance caucus
From the start, there was a gap between two positions: legitimate experts and
representative activists. At the end of the period reviewed in the list that we analyzed, we
think that reconceptualization failed on two points:
- Representativity could have been based on inclusiveness, without exhaustiveness
or formal delegation, by building efficient opportunities for coordination. But the
closing phenomenon were too strong in the e-group – be it intentional or not.
- Legitimacy could have been found empirically through efficiency, but one
condition was missing: the e-group did not articulate the search for a common
agreement on contents through a clear process of collective online argumentation.
- Thus, too much contributions were neglected or privatized. The collective
expertise was dissolved in the conquest of opinion by the leaders.
On civil society
The innovative organization of the WSIS reveals contrasting results with regard to
civil society. On the one hand, this partner played a very positive role in enlarging the debate
far beyond the technological aspects of the Internet. On the other hand, its right to speak and
to influence the outcome was not fully reached. And the more caucuses people gained
influence, the more they became a kind of “semipros” in the process – due to their expertise,
collected resources, alliances and real presence.
We would prefer to call for another concept, that of “civic society” (mentioned by
Rosanvallon, 2006), in which the point is not only to participate in political action, but also to
contribute to modifying its form and instruments. In this regard, the new IGF experience
doesn’t seem to be more productive…
Taking for granted that Internet Governance must be polycentric, we still cannot find
any consensus on the means for achieving this goal. We remain skeptical on the “consensus
method” when applied to three partners (States, business and civil society) whose interests
and capacities are so diverse, even within each category. How can real inclusion, fairness and
trust be created? How to negotiate when the expression of conflicts is underlined? How to
deal with the emergence of a new governance model when governments and business
interests maintain all their powers in the real life?
Enriching the concept of multistakeholderism certainly needs more theoretical and
practical tools than we have until now. Otherwise, it will appear to be the latest “trick” in the
wide arena of international politics.
Two years after the Tunis Summit, the cs-ig-caucus is still alive and deeply involved
in the IGF process. Last April, one of its members put a look back on the process with the
« The "multistakeholder" concept has been easy to accept, for a variety of reasons, which are
probably along these lines:
- Civil society organizations are happy that they get to be included in UN-level
conversations at all, which was not previously the case.
- Governments are happy that they get to be included in internet governance at all,
since the internet is something that was previously organized by technical people and
businesses without direct influence from governments.
- Industry representatives are happy to get formal recognition as an important
stakeholder group, rather than formally being at the end of a chain-of-command, like
they have so far formally been (at least theoretically in every nation that claims to
have a democratic form of government).
When properly understood, the "multistakeholder" concept is just, and not in violation of the
chain-of-command principle outlined above: In any just decision-making process, the
interests, felt demands and verifiable needs of all stakeholder groups must be considered, and
communication between all stakeholders must be facilitated.
As I see it, the danger is that the "multistakeholder" concept gets interpreted as
providing a governance-theoretical justification for continuing the current bad and morally
unacceptable practices of allowing greedy business interests1 to override human rights
- End of quotation-
According to our analyses, the WSIS experience converges with numerous public
debates on contemporary risks (climate and environment, nano and biotechnologies, new
attempts to human rights …) where there is a call for new « experts » - the citizens
expressing their views as well as the researchers providing analyses - while the politicians try
to build their answers in an uncertain world and business-leaders to make their money beyond
the boarders. Will the IGF followings, more focussed on the Millenium development Goals,
do better ?
We add « and authoritarian States”
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