Mapping the Internet Terrain

Alexander Klimburg (Research Fellow, Harvard Kennedy School), Philipp Mirtl (Affiliated Researcher, Austrian Institute for International Affairs), and Snezana Gjorgieva (PhD Candidate, University of Vienna) examines the ongoing power shifts between state and non-state actors in Internet governance, presenting some research notes on the multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance. This paper is part of CGCS’s Internet Policy Observatory (IPO).


The rise of the Internet has had a marked effect on how we view political power.[1] Around the turn of the millennium, the nation-state as a political factor seemed to be in retreat, and was described as being “under siege”.[2] Giving individuals instant and affordable access to vast amounts of information, the Internet “has collapsed the world, transcending and blurring political boundaries.”[3] As everyday lives have been perceived as being significantly transformed by the Internet, so, too, were traditional concepts of territoriality and state sovereignty. It was even claimed that “[t]he new technologies encourage noninstitutional, shifting networks over the fixed bureaucratic hierarchies that are the hallmark of the single-voiced sovereign state.”[4]

However, while there is no doubt “that significant deterritorialisation has taken place in human affairs, territory remains a crucial factor for many key aspects of humankind’s social, economic and especially political structures.”[5] In our near future, the pre-eminence of the state will thus very likely continue to outrange that of non-state actors, but states today will find it much more difficult to maintain their accustomed degree of control. The information revolution has, in fact, triggered a considerable diffusion of power among a broad variety of different state and non-state actors. In such an environment, “[p]olitical leaders will enjoy fewer degrees of freedom before they must respond to events, and then they will have to share the stage with more actors.”[6]

The present paper looks at one of the most relevant fields reflecting the ongoing power shifts between state and non-state actors. This field – really a collection of different processes or regimes – is most commonly referred to as “Internet governance”. Essentially, Internet governance deals with the management of the global resources that effectively make up the Internet. Perhaps one of the most significant features of this field is the multi-stakeholder concept, which has been instrumental in bestowing legitimacy on a number of different actors and institutional arrangements that are key to the functioning of the global Internet.

While the multi-stakeholder concept is generally defined as the participation of representatives from governments, the private sector and civil society, there is no single overriding definition of the term itself. The implied use of the term is “equal participation” of the actors in managing the global Internet resources, however this principle of equal participation has increasingly been called into question – mostly by governments.[7] This, in effect, also calls into question the legitimacy of existing Internet governance institutions – first and foremost the mandate of the non-profit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) which, among other tasks, is responsible for the Domain Name System. If Internet governance is thus construed of as a “battlefield” in the wider context of cyber diplomacy,[8] then the very definition of the multi-stakeholder concept can be seen as akin to a dominant terrain feature. And that terrain is changing.

To put these present changes within a historic context, and provide an example for future, more in-depth research, this paper looks at a decisive moment in the history of Internet governance: a series of United Nations meetings between 2003 and 2005, where the multi-stakeholder concept emerged as a new phraseology in international cooperation.[9] More specifically, this paper looks at how the linguistic patterns of a defining international meeting – the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) – have reflected the power relationships within the field of Internet governance from the outset. While analyzing the impact of the associated Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) on the preparatory processes which eventually led to the final documents of the WSIS, this paper will attempt to shed some light on the power relations between state and non-state actors regarding their different “statuses” within the field of Internet governance.


[1] Political power is perhaps best described as “the ability to affect others to obtain preferred outcomes.”  See Nye, Joseph S. 2011. The Future of Power. New York: Public Affairs. 90.
[2] For a discussion on the globalization‘s effect on state sovereignty see, for instance, Cameron, David R. et al., eds. 2006. Globalization and Self-Determination. Is the nation-state under siege? New York: Routledge.
[3] Kahin, Brian and Charles Nesson, eds. 1997. Borders in cyberspace: information policy and the global information infrastructure. Cambridge: MIT Press. 7.
[4] Where “emperors, kings, dukes, knights, popes, archbishops, guilds, and cities exercised overlapping secular power over the same territory in a system that looks much more like a modern, three-dimensional network than the clean-lined, hierarchical state order that replaced it” (Mathews, Jessica T. 1997. “Power Shift.” Foreign Affairs 7, no. 1 (January/February): 50-66, 61).
[5] Buzan, Barry. 2004. From International to World Society. English School Theory and the Social Structure of Globalisation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 92.
[6] Nye, Joseph S. 2011. The Future of Power. New York: Public Affairs. 116.
[7] See, for instance, Klimburg, Alexander. 2013. “Internet Yalta.“ Commentary at the Center for a New American Security, 5 February: 1-7.
[8] Klimburg, Alexander and Philipp Mirtl. 2012. “Cyberspace and Governance – A Primer.” oiip Working Paper 65 (September): 18-9.
[9] Kummer, Markus. 2013. “Multistakeholder Cooperation: Reflections on the emergence of a new phraseology in international cooperation.” ISOC Public Policy Blog (May).
Featured Photo Credit:Attribution Some rights reserved by Brett Jordan

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