The Global Network of Internet and Society Research Centers (NoC) and the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University have released a report on “multistakeholder governance groups” to better inform the discussion over Internet governance models and mechanisms.

The report is the result of a globally coordinated academic research effort among NoC participants and consists of 12 geographically and topically diverse case studies of governance structures along with a synthesis paper that summarizes key findings across these cases.

The research examined multistakeholder governance groups to assist the evolution of the Internet governance ecosystem. Building on what are known as the NETmundial principles and road map, the research contributes to current policy debates at the international level, including the Internet Governance Forum, the NETmundial Initiative, and the World Economic Forum.

“We are at a crossroads when it comes to the global governance of the Internet, where we must not only respond to complex technical challenges, but also deal with a broad range of policy issues ranging from cybersecurity to net neutrality and human rights,” said Urs Gasser, Berkman Center executive director and Harvard Law School professor of practice, who led the international effort. “This collaborative research wants to strengthen the evidence base as we search for future governance models that preserve the generativity and openness of the Internet, while also addressing pressing challenges and problems.

“Since the Snowden revelations [about government cyber monitoring],” Gasser added, “the question of how to govern the Internet is among the most controversially discussed global policy issues. What is often missing, however, is an understanding of what types of future-oriented governance models and mechanisms are available, which might preserve the generativity of the Internet while effectively addressing the thorny policy issues of our time. With the case studies series, we hope to help [in] closing this gap and [in] strengthening the role of academia in the international debate.”

“With multistakeholder governance, there’s often this assumption that if you find the correct preconditions — the right stakeholders, in the right place, at the right time, working on the right issue, in the right way — then everything will click into place,” said Ryan Budish, Berkman fellow and report co-author. “What we learned from our case studies is that the process of successful governance is actually far more dynamic and complex.”

The report helps to deepen understanding of the formation, operation, and critical success factors of governance groups. It concludes that “[t]here is no single best-fit model for multistakeholder governance groups that can be applied in all instances,”

saying that the research “reveals a range of approaches, mechanisms, and tools available for both the formation and operation of such groups. The analysis demonstrates that the success of governance groups depends to a large degree on the careful selection, deployment, and management of suitable instruments from this ‘toolbox.’

“As governance groups pass through different phases of operation, conveners and facilitators must remain alert to changes in circumstances that necessitate adjustments to the approaches, mechanisms, and tools that they deploy in order to address evolving challenges from inside and from outside,” the report adds. “The case study series provides insights into how those instruments can be deployed and adjusted over time within such groups, and highlights how their interactions with important contextual factors may be successfully managed within given resource restraints.”

Other key observations from the study, as described in the synthesis paper, include the following:

  • Inclusiveness (including mechanisms for participation) and transparency are critical factors to be managed and adjusted throughout the life cycle of governance groups.
  • How governance groups define accountability and legitimacy is highly reflective of and dependent on contextual factors.
  • Different governance groups have different measures of success and effectiveness that are tied to their unique contexts and to factors that change over time.

The report is the first study by the recently launched Global Network of Internet and Society Centers, which brings together more than 30 academic institutions from around the globe. The group has worked to create a shared repository of timely and relevant research, which includes peer-reviewed methodologies and adherence to academic standards, open data, and expertise on diverse issues related to global policy debates. More broadly, the network seeks to contribute to a more generalized vision and longer-term strategy for academia regarding its roles in research, facilitation, and convening, along with education in and communication about the Internet age.

The Berkman Center facilitated the research project, drafted the synthesis document, and contributed two case studies to the effort:

The “Water Management in Northern Ghana” case study examines and compares the international deployment of the decentralized integrated water resource management model for the management of water resources at the local and transboundary levels of the White Volta River Basin and discusses the development of integrated management in water governance more broadly.

The “Swiss ComCom FTTH Roundtable” case study explores the dimensions of how the Swiss government used a multistakeholder process to organize private firms to begin deploying in a coordinated fashion a fiber optic network connected to every home in Switzerland.

The full texts of these, other case studies, and the synthesis paper are available on the Publixphere website, where the authors welcome comments and feedback. The series, individual papers, and synthesis paper are also available for download on the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) website.