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This blog post is written through a very subjective lens and makes no claim to historical accuracy – it is based on my personal memory and a quick scan of my personal archives. Any comments, corrections and pointers to other sources are therefore more than welcome.

It is striking to note the evolution of the concept of multistakeholder cooperation: from a vague notion in 2003, it has gained entry and acceptance into the highest spheres of policy making, from the G8 to the OECD and the Council of Europe; these days it is also part of the World Telecommunication/ICT Policy Forum of the ITU (WTPF) discussions.  This concept has been elevated to an –ism by some, not least in the ITU context where ITU members are asked to consider a so-called Draft Opinion on “Supporting Multi-stakeholderism in Internet Governance”.

The frequency of the use of the term does not in itself imply that we have a common and universal understanding of what we mean by its use, nor does it necessarily add value to the word. I thought, therefore, that it might be helpful to make an attempt to look at the origins of the term, going back to the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), the time I got involved in Internet governance. I think that a reflection on the phraseology’s’s history might give a better indication of what is the core of the multistakeholder concept and what constitutes its main values.

I can’t recall when I first heard the term. Looking through my archives, I can simply note when I started using it myself and I can look at its appearance in key documents. I certainly don’t claim to have come up with it myself – my recollection is that it emerged from civil society participants in the WSIS.

From WSIS and WGIG…

The UN Resolution that called for the convening of the Summit provides the legal basis for WSIS. While a multistakeholder approach is embedded in WSIS, the term “multistakeholder” is not used.[1] The resolution uses the term “stakeholder” twice and identifies civil society and the private sector as stakeholder groups.

Likewise, the Geneva Declaration from 2003 does not use the term “multistakeholder”. However, it emerges for the first time in the Geneva Action Plan, in a rather arcane section of Action Line C2 related to “establishing multi-stakeholder portals for indigenous peoples at the national level.”

A direct consequence of the 2003 WSIS phase and one of the main activities between Geneva and Tunis was the creation of the Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG), its work and its report.

Right after the Geneva Summit, the UN, through the ICT Task Force, organized a “Global Forum on Internet Governance” in New York on 25-26 March 2004 to discuss how best to proceed and how to set up WGIG . An edited collection of papers contributed to the event that was published by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs.[2]  I reported on the WSIS negotiations on Internet governance, at the time, and mentioned that the “open and inclusive nature” of the group would be key and that the “multi-stakeholder nature of the UN ICT Task Force was specifically mentioned as a possible model in this regard”. In total, there are 21 references to “multi-stakeholder” in this publication. 

However, it is worth mentioning that in the discussions on Internet governance during the first phase of WSIS, the term usually used to describe the existing arrangements was “private sector-leadership”, in line with the language used in the setting up of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

It was WGIG that consolidated the use of the term “multi-stakeholder”. The WGIG Report itself uses the term 11 times and, among other things, identifies the need for a “global multi-stakeholder forum to address Internet-related public policy issues”.  Also the WGIG Background Report uses the term 11 times. Finally, it was via WGIG that the term found its way into the Tunis Agenda. The Tunis Agenda has 18 references to “multi-stakeholder”, four of them related to the Internet Governance Forum (IGF).

…to the IGF, OECD, Council of Europe and the G8

Building on the WGIG model, the IGF created a platform for policy dialogue where all stakeholders took part on an equal footing. The Secretary-General appointed an Advisory Group consisting of all stakeholders, also taking into account the newly identified stakeholder group of the “academic and technical communities”. Like WGIG, half of the group members came from governments while the other half from the other stakeholder groups.. The Advisory Group soon became known in popular parlance as Multistakeholder Advisory Group or by its acronym MAG. From February 2008 onwards, the IGF Secretariat also used the new formula and the UN in all its press releases officialized the name and its acronym.

By 2008, the concept of multistakeholder cooperation was well established in Internet Governance spheres and had spread to Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs). The OECD held a Ministerial Meeting on the Future of the Internet Economy in Seoul[3] and adopted a Declaration endorsing the multistakeholder approach (“WE INVITE the OECD to further the objectives set out in this Declaration, through multi-stakeholder co-operation”). Similarly, the Council of Europe held a Ministerial Conference in Reykjavink in 2009 and adopted a Declaration recognizing the need for a “multi-stakeholder approach”.[4]

In 2011, the G8 in their Deauville Declaration, supported the “multi-stakeholder model for Internet governance” [5], and in the same year, the OECD adopted Principles for Internet Policy Making[6]. The stated objective at this meeting was to establish a “framework to ensure the continued and innovative growth of an open Internet economy through multi-stakeholder co-operation”.

The core multistakeholder values

Given this historical context, what are then the basic ingredients that qualify a process of being true to the multistakeholder approach? While multistakeholder participation in WGIG and IGF meant and means that all stakeholders participate on an equal footing, it is also clear that in most organizations, whether intergovernmental or not, some structures are in place to facilitate decision-making processes. The very open character of the IGF may be well suited as a platform for dialogue, but would not lend itself to a body that needs to take decisions. Already the WGIG Report had in its proposed working definition the qualification “in their respective roles”, which means - de facto - that stakeholders have different roles and functions. This was retained in the Tunis Agenda.

Going back to the key characteristics of WGIG and the IGF, the undisputable features we can identify are those relating to the openness, inclusiveness and transparency of processes. The fact that everyone can participate in a process and make their voice heard makes the process multistakeholder by nature. At the same time, the fact that all proceedings are made available through webstreaming, real time transcription and are archived and open for consultation by every interested individual enhances transparency and adds value to the process. These key characteristics constitute the benchmarks – they are the ones that make the multistakeholder approach the governance structure that builds on the Internet.

These characteristics apply to the organizations of the Internet ecosystem. It is encouraging that IGOs are increasingly inspired by these new standards of policy development. Ultimately, all public policies pertaining to the Internet should be developed in a multistakeholder framework – this simply helps make the better decisions!


[1] Resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly on the World Summit on the Information Society (A/RES/56/183)

[2] “Internet Governance: A Grand Collaboration”, edited by Don MacLean, UN ICT Task Force, 2004

[3] OECD Ministerial Meeting on the Future of the Internet Economy, 17-18 June 2008, Seoul.

[4] 1st Council of Europe Conference of Ministers responsible for Media and New Communication Services, Reykjavik, 29 May 2009. MCM(2009)011.

[5] G8 Summit of Deauville – 26-27 May 2011

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