Democracy and Hypocrisy: The US Government’s “Multi-Stakeholder” Model
At the Internet Governance Forum this year, the US government is promoting its version of the “multi-stakeholder” model. What does the US government actually mean by the term “multi-stakeholder” model which it seems so willing to coerce and enforce on the rest of the world? The reality is that the US government does not intend to relinquish any control over the internet; it only wants to create the appearance of legitimacy through faux democracy.
In 1999, the World Trade Organization (WTO) decided to hold a conference in Seattle where government officials and corporate lobbyists from around the world would secretly decide the fate of billions of people without any real democracy or transparency. Thousands of people blocked and barricaded the WTO conference in what would later be known as the Battle in Seattle. While the Battle in Seattle was part of the anti-globalization movement’s climax, it was quickly overshadowed by 9/11 and the Iraq War. Besides its critique of neo-liberalism, it is hard to discern what was the anti-globalization movement’s lasting impact. Largely, the anti-globalization movement failed to form a mass movement to create and opt into long-term alternatives. After learning tough lessons from the Battle in Seattle, the US government has decided that in order to avoid conflict it must make civil society “believe” that it is allowed to participate in important decision-making. Today, even when civil society is allowed to come to conferences through the front door, civil society never gets a full seat at the table. After the important decisions have already been made, civil society is only allowed in to lick the crumbs off the floor.
The Internet Governance Forum is being held this week. The forum is supposed to do… absolutely nothing. It is promoted as a place to discuss policy, but it actually does nothing and that is the whole point. It is meant to make civil society feel that it is included when many of the real decisions about the future of the internet are being made behind the closed doors of the TPP, TTIP, and similar trade negotiations. Civil society is not even allowed a seat at the TPP and TTIP trade negotiations. The TTIP is so unpopular, the US government has resorted to outright bribery to promote TTIP.
Some of the civil society organizations at the Internet Governance Forum would better described as offices of the US State Department. Freedom House, IREX, IWPR, and Internews receive a vast majority of their funding from the US government. It is not fair that the US government is allowed to have its state representatives and then able to fund an unlimited amount of NGOs to masquerade as civil society to promote its foreign policy.
For me personally as an American, perhaps saddest of all is that US government officials pretend to answer questions at conferences abroad, but their own citizens here at home are routinely ignored. Here in the US, the standard response from government officials is, “No comment.”
We can see how the US government currently implements a “multi-stakeholder” model at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC is supposed to listen to “stakeholders” who might be affected by the FCC’s regulations. More often than not, the FCC just sides with the cable companies*, which makes sense considering that many people at the FCC were former cable industry lobbyists. The revolving door in Washington spins so relentlessly that it is difficult to tell the regulators and lobbyists apart. A couple votes in favor of the cable industry and a FCC Commissioner might get a nice job for life at a cable company.
Currently, the FCC is proposing to destroy net neutrality by allowing cable companies to sell “internet fast lanes”. If these regulations are implemented, a couple companies could monopolize the internet and force everyone else to go in the internet slow lane. Ironically, the FCC has decided to name its plan to kill net neutrality as the “Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet” plan!
Just last month, two major cable companies had pledged to donate over $130,000 for a dinner honoring one of the current FCC commissioners, Mignon Clyburn. A watchdog group blew the whistle and went to the news media. The two cable companies reluctantly rescinded their donations only after the news media had a field day with the latest scandal. Oddly, FCC Commissioner Clyburn is scheduled to speak at the Internet Governance Forum about how to increase internet access! (Note: the talk is currently scheduled for September 5, 2014, 9:00am, Room #1
for anyone interested in attending)
While the FCC sometimes allows for public comments in person, the FCC commissioners routinely ignore people unless they happen to a corporate lobbyist or work for an NGO financed by an influential oligarch. When people actually do speak out and stand up for their basic human rights, they are dragged away by police.
If the US government implements the real American-style “multi-stakeholder” model at future Internet Governance Forums, do not be surprised when people are dragged out by police for asking US government officials the “wrong” questions.
Perhaps the most difficult dilemna is how we should overcome the current obstacles we currently face. We should seek the abolition of closed door and backroom negotiations. There should be laws to force governments to openly and publicly negotiate treaties.
The term “stakeholder” should not be used for companies such as Microsoft, Facebook, Google, and other NSA collaborators. These companies helped commit some of the largest human rights violations in history and should be permanently banned from ever having a role in deciding the future of the internet. We should have a long-term strategy to eventually boycott the NSA collaborators out of existence, but we have to build real alternatives for people to opt into first.
We also need to reform and restructure the political-economy. We need a new political-economy that is more transparent and respects individual autonomy, while also creating spaces for voluntary cooperation. Our current political-economy is so extremely coercive and hierarchical that it is easy for governments around the world to intimidate and threaten most companies into complying with mass surveillance. There needs to be more workers’ cooperatives. It would be difficult for the government to coerce a medium size workers’ cooperative into complying with mass surveillance. This simply has to do with the law of numbers. If worker-owners have an equal right to access legal information (especially court orders), it dramatically increases the odds that someone will blow the whistle. Many workers’ cooperatives also run on a consensus model which would make it difficult or impossible to obtain consensus on unwarranted surveillance.
The “multi-stakeholder” model will not save the internet. Reforming and restructuring the political-economy to be more transparent, accountable, and directly democratic is what will ultimately save the internet.
* Note: In the US, the term “cable companies” usually refers to companies that provide packaged telephone, cable television, and internet service for a monthly rate.
Featured image: CC BY Mark Rabo
Guest Author: Rachael Tackett
Rachel comes from the Occupy Movement and and is an expert in Freedom of Information Requests