Multistakeholderism: What is it and why does it matter to international peace and stability online?

If you regularly read our blog (and we hope that you do), you are bound to have come across the term “multistakeholderism” as a concept we use and advocate for. But what is it? How does it apply to cybersecurity? And why is it important? Here, we’ll try to answer some of these questions.

Multistakeholderism Defined

Multistakeholderism is a fairly recent form of global governance, one that brings together stakeholders – anyone with a stake in the discussion to address a specific policy challenge or goal. Stakeholders can encompass representatives from many different groups, including governments, international institutions, technical experts, industry, civil society, academia – and groups like ours! It represents a dramatic departure from what used to be the prevailing model since nation states have been around – multilateralism, where governments were the sole decision-makers and their only interlocutors were other governments.

Multistakeholderism and Cybersecurity

The multistakeholder model emerged from traditional frameworks’ inability to deal effectively with globalization and the challenges posed by globalization, including sustainability and climate change; vaccine research and delivery; or the most prominent and positive example – the internet.

The innovation spurred by online technologies has transformed the world, connected remote communities, and bolstered economies, all while ensuring that the core architecture of our online community remains robust. However, it is necessary for us to recognize that neither the internet nor the multistakeholder model has been without challenges.

That very success of the digital world created new problems and brought new stakeholders into the equation. What used to be the domain of the few, now impacts everyone. It became harder and harder to understand which stakeholders should be at the table, how to manage their different goals and dynamics, and which table is the right one to sit at. Moreover, as the internet became more important to their economies and their interactions with their citizens, governments tried to return to old models, where they were the sole decision-makers, especially when it comes to discussions around cybersecurity and cyberwarfare.

Multistakeholderism Applied

In the physical world, the security of citizens is a core responsibility of governments. The desire to retain those powers completely, despite the fact that most digital infrastructure is not operated by governments and that they have to rely on other stakeholders to understand it, has meant that the first ever official multistakeholder consultation on the topic took place only eight months ago, when the United Nations hosted its intersessional meeting on peace and security in cyberspace.

While no one is arguing that those powers be taken up by others in cyberspace, a world where civil society voices fighting to protect human rights are silenced is not acceptable.

In fact, civil society, industry, and academia have not been idle and have been pushing for greater inclusion on the issue of digital security. That pressure drove concrete initiatives, focused on increasing stability and security of our online world. One such project is the Contract for the Web, developed by representatives from over 80 different organizations, and endorsed by hundreds more. The Contract’s nine principles ask governments, industry, and individuals to advocate on behalf of the web, focus on its greater connectivity and availability, and work to ensure that human rights—such as the right to privacy—are respected online.

Another example is the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace, which also brings together stakeholders around nine core principles. These are focused on the issues we at Digital Peace Now particularly care about – peace and security in cyberspace. The principles demand governments restrain their online offensive action and work with industry to protect the infrastructures we all rely on. It similarly calls on industry to invest in security and behave responsibly by not engaging in hacking retaliatory hacking for example.

These two initiatives show the goodwill that exists in the multistakeholder community to work together to develop concrete steps that help preserve our online environment. This knowledge base and enthusiasm needs to be tapped into further to resolve the challenges ahead of us. Digital Peace Now stands ready to advocate for the right of citizens to be part of the conversation, and to help make a meaningful difference in coming debates.