Understanding Multistakeholder Governance

The term “governance” is an increasingly referenced concept that captures the fact that in many arenas governments are no longer the sole or even primary “governors” (Castells 2008). Instead we are moving towards “multi-stakeholder governance” in many sectors, with different actors playing different roles. For example, the neoliberal paradigm in the U.S. has seen the private sector take the reins of institutions such as schools, prisons, and hospitals to an extent which in previous eras would have been thought unimaginable. In much of Sub-Saharan Africa, since the structural adjustment period of the early 1990s, NGOs have taken over much of the work of “development,” an arena previously monopolized  by the state, providing healthcare, education, water, loans, and other basic necessities to people. By implication, these NGOs and their donors have a role in determining which region, which ethnic group, and even which gender will develop faster and according to what definition of “development,” an inherently political and value-laden agenda (Piot 2010).

Denardis’ 2014 book The Global War for Internet Governance, offers a window into the way that values and politics shape the Internet’s governance vis-à-vis its architecture and the many actors that play a governance role. Denardis explains that the Internet by its nature is a distributed network, and therefore it inherently entails a “distributed and networked multistakeholder governance, involving traditional public authorities and international agreements, new institutions, and information governance functions enacted via private ordering and arrangements of technical architecture” (p. 23).

Denardis argues, and I would agree, that the politics of Internet governance matter to a great degree because governance can either be a mechanism for corruption, oppression, and exploitation, or instead a mechanism to ensure freedom of expression, relative security, fair competition, innovation, and interoperability. A key takeaway of her work is the understanding that the same technologies that enable the free flow of information can also be used to block access to information and/or surveil individuals (p. 24). Therefore social context is required to evaluate the implications of a particular technological formation. For example, the same software that can protect a child from online pornography, thereby opening up the Internet as a source of academic knowledge, can also be used by authoritarian regimes to censor content that challenges their legitimacy. Denardis’ book is a must-read for anyone who cares about governance at the intersection of technology and politics.

Castells, Manuel. 2008. “The New Public Sphere: Global Civil Society, Communication Networks and Global Governance.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 616 (1): 78–93.

DeNardis, Laura. 2014. The Global War for Internet Governance. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Piot, Charles. 2010. Nostalgia for the Future: West Africa after the Cold War. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.

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