Inclusion and legitimacy in multistakeholderism at ICANN

28 Nov 2019 09:30h - 11:00h

Event report

[Read more session reports and updates from the 14th Internet Governance Forum]

Inclusive participation is a key component of the multistakeholder model of Internet governance, and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is one of the champions of this model. But how is multistakeholderism working within ICANN and is the organisation diverse enough?

To respond to these questions, the University of Gothenburg conducted a worldwide study surveying 500 participants from ICANN, spread across all stakeholder groups. The study, presented by Mr Jan Aart Scholte (Professor, University of Gothenburg) looked into how those surveyed assessed inclusivity and inequality of influence in the ICANN regime, in terms of geography, sector, language, gender, age, race, and other.

Over 70% of those surveyed felt it was important for ICANN to give all stakeholders an opportunity to participate in its policy-making processes. In practice, 50% of the respondents felt that ICANN gave stakeholders the opportunity to participate in policy-making.

Perceptions of problematic inequalities at ICANN, however, vary depending on age, geography, race, language skills, and gender. On average, the Global South participants and the Global North participants perceived the same amount of North-South influence inequality. Participants with lower and higher English skills perceived similar inequalities of influence. On the other hand, younger generations perceived significantly more inequality at ICANN than those from the older generations, while women perceived significantly more gender inequality than men. In summary, while participants broadly appreciated ICANN’s efforts towards inclusive stakeholder involvement in policy-making, they felt that inequalities by demographics were moderately to quite problematic. Another study, conducted between 2016 and 2018, argued that business entities had more influence within the ICANN ecosystem.

According to Ms Nandini Chami (Researcher, IT for Change), future studies about multistakeholderism should centre on issues related to jurisdiction, immunity, and geopolitics.

To fully understand how multistakeholderism works within ICANN, one must revisit the organisation’s history, mission, and vision. Moreover, we should not forget that ICANN has a narrow mission, that of co-ordinating global Internet systems of unique identifiers; therefore, the domain name industry has a direct, business-driven interest in participating in ICANN processes. As suggested by Ms Erika Mann (Senior Advisor, Covington & Burling LLP. Mann; Council Member, Generic Name Supporting Organization (GNSO)), there is a tendency of ignoring such issues when assessing the ICANN model.

We should make a distinction between inclusive and meaningful participation. Participation at ICANN is influenced by a host of other factors, such as time constraints, language barriers, financial resources, and the ability of new participants to join pre-established groups and to meaningfully contribute to their work. But these challenges are not impossible to overcome. To illustrate this point, Mr Leon Sanchez (Board Member, ICANN) spoke about his own experience in joining ICANN, initially as a fellow, to later find his way up to the board of directors.

Achieving balanced participation in a multistakeholder model such as ICANN’s is a complex matter, but we need to avoid token participation for the sake of achieving more inclusion. Meaningful participation is, once again, key, so we need to ensure that the ICANN environment can encourage both inclusion and meaningful participation.

While assessing multistakeholderism, inclusion, and diversity within ecosystems such as ICANN and the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), we should also look at how these ecosystems compare to other decision-making bodies. UN processes, for example, are by default multilateral, and, in general, do not allow the participation of other stakeholders. So while ICANN and the IGF might not be perfect, we should be mindful of the value they have.

Generally speaking, multistakeholderism should work in a way that is recognised as legitimate and effective. ICANN and other entities and processes in the Internet governance space should empower more people to become active contributors, through creating a safe, supportive, and welcoming environment.

By Bonface Witaba