Reflections for the 2014 Milton Wolf Seminar

The work of Research ICT Africa (RIA) in relation to internet governance has sought to understand why few African countries participate actively in internet governance debates, despite the significant resources of multilateral and donor agencies thrown at such endeavours and opportunities created for participation through multistakeholder initiatives – with a few notable exceptions such as Kenya. Fewer still are involved in agenda setting and decision-making, or seek to engineer internet governance outcomes to serve their interests, whatever those might be perceived to be. This is despite the rhetoric of dissatisfaction with current internet governance systems.

From an African perspective, internet governance requires not only an understanding of the unevenness in access to and use of the internet, but also of the disparities between developed and developing countries’ abilities to effectively participate in global internet governance debates. My own intermittent work in this area has sought to identify the political and economic assumptions underpinning the governance of the internet, specifically behind efforts to make it more democratic, both representative and participatory, through multistakeholderism from an institutional perspective.

African countries appear to be far more comfortable in national sovereign state membership based organizations, where – despite limited institutional reforms over the last decade which have seen parts of civil society and industry able to advise and observe – active participation is restricted to member states. While most African members remain equally inactive in agenda setting in such institutions they are able to determine outcomes through voting en bloc as the African caucus – often in support of regressive motions with severely negative outcomes for their citizens, particularly the poor. This model perpetuates the classical intergovernmental approach to global telecommunications governance, in which governments have the exclusive right to make public policy decisions. Due to lack of financial resources and limited skills, the majority of African countries have no or very little impact in policy making processes in other Internet governance structures such as the ICANN and therefore the intergovernmental model is perceived as the most efficient way to influence global decision-making with regard to the internet.

Despite commitments by many African governments at various global forums to the principle of ‘an open and free internet’, in practice in global member state bodies such as the International Telecommunications Unions such principles generally are trumped by the interest of their state-owned incumbents or new dominant private players, with whom there is often formal ownership by political parties, national leadership or straight kickbacks.  Such was the case with the African caucus position at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) 2012 in Dubai, which supported the European operators (ETNA) motion to require over the top (OTT) service to pay network providers, with the likely outcome of ending the ‘free internet’ as we know it and denying millions of Africans the potential it offers for free information.

Yet despite these negative outcomes, an African agenda on Internet governance is far from being defined. In a paper, written together with Enrico Calandro and Nicolo Zingales, we map the multistakeholderism in the system of internet governance and draw out the largely negative outcomes for Africa.  Some of the reasons for this include the absence or nascent nature of the internet industry and civil society organizations in many African countries. Even where they exist, with the exception of Kenya in sub-Saharan Africa, their exclusion from the delegations of national governments to international meetings is the norm. In addition, where international meetings are open to non-governmental entities, and participation is permitted independently of formal state delegations, they tend to take place in venues requiring resources for travel and accommodation, to which civil society organizations seldom have access. This is of course different for industry and large multinational operators, which do tend to have a presence in such forums and are often included in government delegations. As a result, civil society organizations are generally unable to advocate at national, regional and inter-governmental levels.

A political economy approach to internet governance provides insights into why this is so and counters some of the treatment of internet governance in the literature and practice as primarily a technical management issues as opposed to an issues of public policy. Internet governance organizations, particularly through multistakeholder approaches adopted as part of reform initiatives to inform them, assume democratic underpinnings in the national political systems of African member states that are often absent or fragile. By large African governments appear reluctant to tolerate non-state participation in what is regarded as a strategic resource that requires safeguarding, in the national interest, rather than in the public interest. The kind of deliberative democratic engagement that civil society organisations are demanding in terms of reform is highly threatening to fragile states who see civil society as more aligned to international forces and social movements than to their own interests in their respective countries.

Economically, the assumptions simply of connectivity, not to mention technical expertise, unwittingly undermine efforts of inclusion. The latest ICANN President’s Strategy Panel on Multistakeholder Innovation to redesign ICANN and its multistakeholder decision-making process is a case in point. Almost exclusively, the solutions proposed to making the ICANN a more transparent, accountable and accessible organisation were underpinned by such assumptions – from opening up procurement to crowdsourcing decisions – of affordable access to internet and technical expertise to contribute to ICANN were assumed. There was one ‘human’ solution which sought ways of getting those currently marginalized from participation to places were they could engage directly to influence outcomes. Despite efforts to broaden the discussion with the inclusion of the panel of Africans (Bitange Ndemo from Kenya and myself), this was primarily the connected world and those with a voice already within the ICANN community and web-based epistemic communities already talking among ourselves.

In the work going forward with the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, RIA intends to undertake a more systematic and comprehensive historical reconstruction and institutional analysis of internet governance in Africa in order to explain and understand some of these apparent contradictions. It will also attempt a demand side survey of individuals active in internet governance at any level, to understand the constraints for participation and influence within the system of internet governance and what opportunities exist to make the system more transparent, accountable and inclusive.


Cohen, T and Gillwald, A (2008) The Ambiguities of Participation in the Global Governance of Electronic Networks: Implications for South Africa and Lessons for Developing Countries in Drake, W and Wilson, Governing Global Electronic Networks: International Perspectives on Policy and Power, MIT Press 10.7551/mitpress/9780262042512.001.00

Calandro, Enrico, Alison Gillwald, and Nicolo Zingales. (2013). Mapping Multistakeholderism in Internet governance: Implications for Africa. Research ICT Africa.