How to multistakeholder wash Internet disconnection: On the multistakeholder Internet governance sanction regime

Demilitarization of the Internet is a goal we should all aspire to. This can be done in various ways, such as effective nongovernmental attribution of cyberattacks, emphasizing the importance of bringing in stakeholders other than governments and the military as well as self-governance.

Recently, some have used the awful war Russia has started against Ukraine to come up with a statement and a solution of how we go about imposing sanctions that can demilitarize the Internet and overcome propaganda. I call that statement multistakeholder washing of Internet disconnection. Multistakeholder washing is the process of taking a process controlled by an elite group, and dressing it up in the clothes of multiple stakeholders. The statement about sanctions is a good case study:

1.  Stages of multistakeholder washing 

First step: In order to multistakeholder wash an idea, a limited set of stakeholders— sometimes excluding affected communities, and frequently including people with a lot of resources and power— get together and come up with their own solution. We can call this group the Wise Ones. They do this initial step behind closed doors, to get the statement out; otherwise it will get too noisy and involve too many people. 

Second step: the Wise Ones publish the statement, and use their connections to promote the idea (e.g. ensuring that media outlets have early access)  The Wise Ones also tell everyone that they are open to feedback while shutting down opposing views and at the same time starting to operationalize their idea. These kinds of approaches are not unknown to those who practice multistakeholderism. Including only “insiders” preliminary stages of statements is a tactic that serves to control the process as much as possible.

Some consortiums or other unilateral processes start first as single stakeholder initiatives and later on try to adopt a multistakeholder approach. That is not the approach used here. In this model, the Wise Ones claim they are multistakeholder already. 

Third step: Save the whole world (which most of the time actually means the West). 

2. Who are the stakeholders?

Part of the legitimacy of the Wise Ones depends on a pose of neutrality and inclusion. Usually, the Wise Ones solutions are proposed for highly contentious issues where there is a lot of disagreement. So, the Wise Ones often claim broad legitimacy from unnamed supporters who, unfortunately, cannot name themselves publicly. This step we can call “inclusion of the unnamed”.

In the current example, for instance, we don’t know who the stakeholders are, other than the ones who signed the statement. The ones on the statement are mostly Western, mostly male, and mostly never lived in sanctioned countries, or operated networks there. 

We can see the action of inclusion of the unnamed in a claim that one of the leaders of this statement, Bill Woodcock, made on LinkedIn:

“Ten days and 87 authors, from every part of the Internet governance community… This is how we do multistakeholderism, and ensure that the Internet is not used as a tool of war or oppression.

There are 36 people who have signed this open letter.  We have no way of knowing who the other 51 are. Perhaps they do bring to the proposal the perspective of people who have lived in sanctioned countries and dealt with the result, but the included list of people who did sign on does not give one a lot of confidence. In this case, Mr Woodcock should have clarified every part of the Internet community that they managed to convince to agree with this initiative! We shouldn’t need to wonder why this document came together so quickly. 

3. That unprecedented challenge we knew about for so many years 

A third element of multistakeholder washing is the assertion that the issue being confronted is entirely new, which requires the heroic intervention of the Wise Ones to confront. For instance, in the present case, the document makes such an assertion from the very beginning. It says: “The invasion of Ukraine poses a new challenge for multistakeholder Internet infrastructure governance.”

The invasion of Ukraine does not pose a new challenge for multistakeholder Internet infrastructure governance. This is a challenge that those working on the statement want to pay attention to only now and want to do something collectively only now. Many people raised the challenges that faced the Internet during conflicts and wars. Afghanistan and Syria are only two wars that raised very similar challenges. 

Let’s reframe this sentence to what it really is about. The invasion of Ukraine reinforced this challenge, which triggered the West to finally pay attention to it in a collective manner. It’s good to have people paying attention to these issues, but only if we actually consider that, like the Internet, this challenge has a global dimension and includes more communities than Western based entities. 

4. Adopting tired, old approaches that have been tried and tested and failed

A peculiar element of multistakeholder washing is that it frequently presents, as new and revolutionary, solutions or approaches that have previously been tried and found wanting. This may be because the Wise Ones group excludes too many participants who would have been able to point out the similarity to previous approaches to a problem.

In this case, for instance, the technocrats who make up the Wise Ones claim,

“The effectiveness of sanctions should be evaluated relative to predefined goals. Ineffective sanctions waste effort and willpower and convey neither unity nor conviction.” and “Sanctions should be focused and precise. They should minimize the chance of unintended consequences or collateral damage. Disproportionate or over-broad sanctions risk fundamentally alienating populations.”

Sanctions have to be effective and precise. This is not a unique and ingenious principle. Governmental sanctions were never adopted without predefined goals. (US sanctions had human rights goals in mind.) They didn’t want to be ineffective either, hence they considered fines. There were attempts to be precise too, so they came up with a list. But these lists have historically affected those vulnerable communities oppressed by dictatorships more than the dictators themselves. Those who have worked on the issue have documented this through years of monitoring and observing the situation. Because businesses want to do business, and don’t want to get fined, they automatically act cautiously where sanctions might affect them. This leads to over-compliance with the sanctions, and on the Internet that means the disconnection of whole communities of people. Despite the fact that the US office of treasury emphasized every step of the way that ordinary people should not be affected by sanctions and that the specially designated national (SDN) list was in effect to come up with proportional sanctions to limit collateral damage, businesses (tech and non-tech) just stopped doing anything with the residents of those based in sanctioned countries. Internet companies sometimes even refuse to provide their products to businesses that are not residents of the sanctioned countries but that provide services to such countries. Read more about that here. None of that is a new development, and if there is something truly new in this sanction proposal it is pretty hard to see what. 

5. Only military and propaganda agencies and their information infrastructure are potential targets of sanctions

Another odd element of multistakeholder washing is that the proposals usually make exaggerated promises of effectiveness. Part of the reason that multistakeholder processes can be frustrating is because they include so many participants, which can slow progress. But that wide inclusion tends to make for an effective system because, as the open source software advocates like to say, with enough eyeballs all bugs are shallow. When an exclusive group pretends to be multistakeholder, the advantage of different perspectives is lost.

In the example of the sanctions proposal under discussion, part of the supposed virtue is the narrow target. But blocking “propaganda agencies” will not lead to demilitarization of the Internet, but to politicization of the Internet. For some, the Voice of America, is a propaganda agency. For others, other countries’ outlets are. What are the parameters to decide what a propaganda agency is? Who decides, and how?

Also, the claim that the sanctions will only target certain entities and networks is naive. One does not even need the experience to see this. Militaries in dictatorships, and especially in sanctioned countries, will use networks of civilians (by force if necessary). They own many channels of communications and sometimes have their representatives in those networks. It was only today that London Internet Exchange announced that it had to comply with sanctions and suspended the membership of two Russian AS numbers that belonged to telecommunication agencies in Russia. This might be because the owners of those ASes were in the legal sanction list. But the disconnection will potentially hamper many more people.  

This is why the “list based approach” never worked when it came to sanctions. Since the powerful in sanctioned countries can navigate around the list, they will not be affected. The sanctions can’t catch the powerful, but they do catch the “small flies” that don’t have the resources of oligarchs or military. 

6. The multistakeholder community is here to save the day

Part of the reason multistakeholder washing is attractive is that the idea of a multistakeholder process conveys a certain kind of legitimacy. In the worst examples, that legitimacy is held up against governments asking them not to impose sanctions! This issue shows up prominently in this principle: “It is inappropriate and counterproductive for governments to attempt to compel Internet governance mechanisms to impose sanctions outside of the community’s multistakeholder decision-making process.”

Governments impose sanctions as a means of implementing their foreign policies. So, sanctions are inherently government action. An optional, non-governmental refusal to interact with someone else is not a sanctions regime. It’s a consumer boycott (in this case a military consumer boycott). Which would have been an interesting regime, and if that is what this group means, they should actually clarify it. 

But learning from the governments’ experiences about sanctions is crucial. Governments have been imposing sanctions on various countries and groups which hampered the access of ordinary people to services on the Internet and Internet infrastructure. You can’t stop them by having a principle that they shouldn’t impose sanctions. And if you provide the governments with a list, governments will add to their sanction list and fine every network that communicates with the sanctioned networks. This is how sanctions work.

The Networks themselves have already been complying with sanctions or enabling customers to comply with sanctions. Networks on the Internet have to follow the laws of the countries they are based in. In fact, Content Delivery Networks and others have allowed for businesses not to serve certain regions or countries and they don’t consult with any imaginary multistakeholder community, because they have to follow the law. The US regularly confiscates domain names because they were owned or related to some military force and had undertaken disinformation campaigns (see one example). What is this multistakeholder community going to do in the future when the US does something like that again, using this new multi stakeholder-approved list? Is that the outcome this group wants? 

The Wise Ones also recommend due process and consensus to come up with the magic list. Due process usually is provided after the fact. This must mean that they will have a list of organizations, IP addresses and domain names and if those people complain, then there will be a process to unblock them. Which is good, but again another tried and tested method that is not efficient nor fair. (you see a lot of “due process” arguments in content take-down that completely ignore the deprivation of access to crucial services to people) What is not well thought out here is how wrongful disconnection is going to be prevented? What are the remedies? These are the fundamental questions that the proposal assures will be solved by consensus among the multistakeholder community. But waving these problems away as a simple matter of consensus is simple wishful thinking. The entire problem of sanctions is a political one of who is to be sanctioned, by whose authority, and with what effect. In answer to that problem, the Wise Ones offer “due process and consensus”. In other words, on the basic central issue, this proposal makes no proposal at all. 

How to move ahead?

Multistakeholder washing creates the illusion of a multistakeholder process when the process is actually exclusionary. It is probably not that surprising that this would be used to build a recommendation for a sanctions regime. For sanctions regimes are inherently exclusionary. They consider nation states as the unit of analysis and if you have decided to sanction some ruling party in a country, you are naturally not going to include them in the discussions. Which is fine, but then your process will not be multistakeholder, you can pick another name for it. You can call it the Networks We Don’t Like!

Many of us agree we need to stop the militarization of the Internet and attempt to demilitarize it. But can we do that with a “sanction regime” and a “list based” approach that can be abused and lead to disconnection of ordinary people from the Internet? The evidence so far would appear to be no, which is what would have been evident to the people who proposed this sanctions model if they had actually engaged the wide range of stakeholders that is a necessary condition to meet all the principles the authors laid out. Businesses, network operators and others are free to take private actions and talk to the networks they like and boycott the networks they don’t. But perhaps it is better to acknowledge that this is not a multistakeholder process and it will not be possible to uphold those principles laid out in the document, i.e. people’s access to the Internet will be hampered. 



About The Author

Farzaneh Badii

Digital Medusa is a boutique advisory providing digital governance research and advocacy services. It is the brainchild of Farzaneh Badi[e]i.Digital Medusa’s mission is to provide objective and alternative digital governance narratives.

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