With multistakeholder governance gaining popularity in content governance, some initiatives have been keen on using the term to describe their governance model. The conversations around the multistakeholder nature of these processes motivated us to provide a draft framework to assess multistakeholder models in content governance.
We also held a session about multistakeholder content governance at the Internet Governance Forum 2021.*
During the session we talked about three initiatives: Christchurch Call to Action, Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism and the Facebook Oversight Board. It is of note that the first two initiatives have a narrow mandate: to eradicate and prevent terrorist, extremist content across platforms and online service providers. The Oversight Board however, has a much broader mandate that relates to content in general, but it’s limited to Facebook and Instagram.
There are a few important points that emerged from the session:
- Multistakeholder governance goes beyond nation-states
- Multistakeholder participation can happen at various stages of decision-making
- Authority of the stakeholder groups is not directly related to their influence
Going beyond nation-states in content governance
Imagine if instead of just opening “public policy” offices in different countries, the online platforms would consider using a multistakeholder model to govern their users on their platform. This is not to say that we can or should give a global dimension to every issue and apply the multistakeholder model. But there are some issues that because of the global nature of these platforms, we can address with a multistakeholder model.
The Internet has revealed that the arbitrary nation-states’ borders are not an optimal unit for governance. The multistakeholder models allow us to use other units for governance. Sometimes local issues don’t belong to a certain geography and are shared with many others around the world.
Also, platforms content policies can and will affect the other parts of the Internet and its architecture, so including stakeholders that operate the infrastructure in these discussions can also help with preserving the open and global nature of the Internet.
When does multistakeholder participation start?
The participation of different stakeholder groups in governance processes does not always start from the very beginning. Sometimes the initiatives start as a public-private partnership or by the industry.
During the Christchurch Call, since the governments and tech-corporations negotiated the commitments bilaterally, other stakeholder groups were left out and their role was not clear. The governments then decided to give a more formulated role to civil society. They convened the Christchurch Call Advisory Network that included civil society members and focused on including civil society in the implementation phase of the commitments.
Another example of this is the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism which was an industry led initiative in the beginning and is now trying to infuse some multistakeholder structure to the process.
Converting some or all parts of a top-down led process to a multistakeholder process comes with its own challenges. For example the Christchurch Call Advisory Network has to work with the Christchurch Call text, which has used broad terms such as “online service providers” and terms that have very contested definitions such as terrorism.
Should stakeholder groups have authority or influence?
This is an interesting debate since it’s about soft versus hard power. If we look at the history of Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, we might argue that over time stakeholders became more powerful and had a vote in policy-making decisions. But at the same time, the Government Advisory Committee, which supposedly was set up to give “advice” became more and more powerful. This was to the extent that its advice became de facto binding on ICANN board of directors (with some minimal exceptions).
While there is no clear-cut answer to what role should different stakeholders have, authority might not always bring about influence. So the initiative can be very multistakeholder and tick all the multistakeholder boxes, but in the end, the decisions are made by one powerful stakeholder.
So why do we need this framework?
We need to rescue “multistakeholder governance” by demystifying it. “Multistakeholder” processes are not all the same. The degree of involvement of different stakeholders in decision-making differs from one initiative to another. Using a framework to find out about these differences can help us understand what we need to improve and what is working. The framework might help us get a clearer picture of the governance models in content governance. It is not about who is more or less multistakeholder, it is about how these initiatives operationalize multistakeholder models, the effectiveness of these approaches and the future improvements.
*We, a group of academics and civil society actors including Dr. Courtney Radsch, Dia Kayyali, Dr Milton Mueller and Jyoti Panday, suggested a framework for multistakeholder content governance. During the session we had a conversation with Dr. Ellen Strickland from the New Zealand government, Rachel Wolbers, Public Policy Manager at Facebook Oversight Board, and Dr. Erin Saltman from Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, to discuss the framework for multistakeholder content governance.