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Normative Experience in Internet Politics

Françoise Massit-Folléa
Cécile Méadel
Laurence Monnoyer-Smith

Chapter 5. Democracy and global governance: the wager of the Internet Governance Forum

Claudia Padovani

Texte intégral

  • 1 “Governance is achieved by the creation of interactive, socio-political structures and processes s (...)
  • 2 Information and communication have emerged as “one of the newest and most internationalized areas (...)
  • 3 See Laura De Nardis with her Protocol Politics [De Nardis, 2009b].

1This contribution addresses the challenges posed to governing arrangements by global transformations characterized by diversity, dynamics and complexity [Kooiman, 2003]. Such transformations bring new concerns, expectations and criticism related to the possibility of a more democratic conduct of world politics, as well as new questions concerning the desirability and preconditions for democratic developments at the supra-national level. In this context, we need to acknowledge the centrality of communication to global transformations: information and communication technologies have profound impact on political processes1; communications have become an object of global public policy2; governing global communications is not only a challenge but also a test-bed for new regulatory practices3. In this context it is more and more relevant to develop an in-depth understanding of how problems are framed, actors interact and public purposes are produced and circulated in communication-related fields, especially if we are to include a democracy oriented concern in our analyses [Raboy & Padovani, 2010].

  • 4 Most analyses have been conducted in the context of a Research Project of National Relevance (PRIN (...)

2Building on a series of recent research efforts4 aimed at clarifying “how is global communication governance being structured?”, I here discuss the democratic challenge of media and communication governance by looking at transnational governance networks (TGNs) operating in the context of Internet Governance (IG), to apply and test an analytical framework that combines different dimensions.

3The present reflection focuses on TGNs specifically in (or around) the Internet Governance Forum (IGF); it discusses the democratizing potential of their discursive interactions in a multi-actor setting; and addresses the very possibility of considering multi-stakeholderism as an emerging norm that fosters democratic practice in the governance of communication, also through actors’ use of digital technologies.


Democratic principles and the governance of global communications

4As it has been noticed, the “International governance of IT (through global information networks) may epitomize the new forms of governance arising in global politics” [Singh, 2002, p. 18]. The issue is, therefore, legitimate: can the governance of the Internet (IG) be considered a playing field where potentially democratizing trends emerge, deserving critical attention and inviting the elaboration of adequate assessment tools? In other words: can practices and discourses that characterize IG contribute to steer the present global system, which is suffering from a widely recognized crisis of consensus and legitimization, towards a more democratic path? How are we to identify and assess developments and trends? Finally, can those trends be generalized to other sectors?

5I propose we adopt a conceptualization of democracy that goes beyond procedural considerations such as representation and voting (in the case of international relations, state representation and their operation in official intergovernmental venues), to include substantial aspects, such as principles of popular control and political equality, as well as recognition of the centrality of fundamental human rights and the results and impact of political decisions. In doing this, we can look at and analyse political processes referring to a set of mediating principles such as: participation and inclusion, representation and accountability, responsiveness and respect for fundamental rights, transparency and publicity.

  • 5 For further elaboration on this approach to substantial democracy see: [O’Donnel, 1994; Mastropaol (...)

6According to the literature looking at the quality of contemporary democratic practices5, these principles are interdependent and indivisible, and should be fostered in contexts that operate according to clear rules. Transparency means that “decisions are taken and their enforcement is done in a manner that follows the rules and regulations. It also means that information is freely made available and directly accessible to those who will be affected by such decisions…” ( Access to clear and appropriate information is crucial for the general public and specific groups in order to create awareness and foster discussion, just as it is crucial for the media to perform their mediating role for society at large. Transparency is also a precondition for openness, which refers to the participatory dimension; it follows from access to information and implies access to deliberation and decision-making processes. Those who have stakes in decisions should not be just considered as mere beneficiaries; rather, they should be involved on the basis of their expertise, needs and priorities, and of their willingness and motivation to identify problems, discuss solutions, make decisions and implement plans and strategies. It is thanks to stakeholders’ direct knowledge that policies which are more responsive to people’s needs can be adopted. Awareness and engagement of a variety of actors are preconditions for holding authorities and other stakeholders accountable for their decisions and actions, through ongoing discussions and monitoring activities. Monitoring, combined with direct knowledge, skills and expertise, allows for more coherent and efficient implementation, in order to respond to societal requirements through the best use of available resources.

7The above-mentioned principles should therefore inform any democratic political project, from the local to the global, keeping in mind that the distinction between domestic and international democratic development is less and less relevant, since the democratic challenge touches directly on the erosion of territorial and juridical boundaries due to globalization processes [Beck, 2005; Marchetti, 2008]. On the other hand, it is crucial to think of democratization as a way to overcome the different forms of exclusion that characterize the global context (from the normative to the jurisdictional), thus offering individuals and communities the possibility of taking part, on an equal basis, in the definition of choices that affect their lives.

8A number of requirements are identified as pre-conditions for realizing and implementing these principles, such as the recognition of identities and roles of the actors involved, their rights, capacities and resources; the existence of adequate spaces and infrastructures for debate and participation, ad hoc supportive agencies but also cultural and normative traits. By looking at the implementation of these principles and requirements in a context like the governance of communications, and IG as a specific site, a multidimensional assessment of democratic practice can fruitfully be initiated.

9As we make the effort to articulate such principles in our study of IG, we face the challenge of translating the normative assumptions of democracy into a set of constitutional structures, juridical institutions and social practices [Petrucciani, 2004] that make sense in a supra- and trans-national context. It is not the aim here to rethink democracy in the global context, but to elaborate a methodology for analyzing the democratic components of existing processes. We can therefore think of constitutional assets not only in procedural terms, such as votes and rules, but also in terms of the liberties that should compose the democratic landscape, including expression, association and participation. We can also think of juridical institutions not just as elections and parliaments, but also as the normative bases of procedural mechanisms: the very principles according to which processes are conducted. Finally, we can look at social practices as the socio-cultural conditions of democratic processes, as they emerge from actors’ interaction and networking. Combined together, these three dimensions provide the basis for investigating concrete processes and for taking into consideration the interplay among communicative, institutional and social dynamics. In the attempt to develop a framework to investigate the democratic character of IG processes, we therefore consider: actors’ discursive interactions, which are constitutive of the very context within which they operate; and the normative settings within which they interact (juridical institutions as operationalized norms). Furthermore, we suggest it is meaningful to do this by looking at the ways in which actors’ social practices develop in and through trans-national networks.

Discursive interaction and global democracy

  • 6 Amongst the recent works on global democracy: [Holden, 2000], [Aksu & Camilleri, 2002], [Gould, 20 (...)

10The debate on global democracy has a long history and is still very open. As [Marchetti, 2008] reminds us in a recent account of debates on cosmopolitanism and democracy, different strands of reflection have characterized different phases. In the ’70s and ’80s the prevailing focus was on the ethical dimension of cosmopolitism [Pogge, 1992; Singer, 2002]; a specific focus on international institutions and the idea of cosmopolitan governance characterized reflections in the ’90s [Rosenau, 1995; Archibugi & Held, 1995; Held, 1995; Held, 2004]; and a more sociological reflection has emerged in recent years [de Sousa Santos, 2002; Tarrow, 2005]6. Also, a discursive approach has developed recently, stressing the possibility of democratizing discourse-related sources of power [Dryzek, 1999, 2005, 2006]. This last mentioned perspective seems to be consistent with our aim: it builds on a constructivist approach to world politics, but differentiates itself from more conventional approaches [Onuf, 1989; Kratochwil, 1989; Went, 1992; Adler, 1997] in as much as it highlights the relevance of discourses and trans-national public spheres, thus focussing on the substantial components of actors’ interaction, but also on the interaction amongst discourses.

11The idea of trans-national discursive democracy rests on the notion that “discourses and their interactions are consequential in producing international outcomes through their influence upon and constitution of actors” [Dryzek, 2005, p. 4]; moreover, discourses are defined as “shared sets of concepts, categories and ideas that provide its adherents with a framework for making sense of situations, embodying judgements assumptions, capabilities, dispositions and intentions” (ibidem, p. 8). The democratic question is, for the author, “how can dispersed, critical and competent influence be established?”; and part of the answer rests on the fact that “decentralized control is only democratic to the degree it involves communicative action engaged by critical and competent individuals, acting as citizens and not as consumers, enemies or automatons” (ibidem, p. 4).

  • 7 Furthermore, this focus on discourses allows to think of “discursive representation” as a way to o (...)

12Following Giddens [1994] we should remind that discourses, as structures, can be constraining, when they are conceived as constitutive of actors, but they can also entail freedom and be enabling when the structures of discourse “become the target of decentralized reflection and conscious action” [Dryzek, 2005, p. 10]. On the one hand trans-national discursive democracy succeeds “to the extent it renders international institutions more directly accountable to global citizenry”; but, on the other hand, the cumulative weight of small interventions in the discursive field can also be crucial, even in the absence of formal institutional intervention “through a myriad of actors located through the discourses of the world” (ibidem, p. 28)7.

13Relevant to our topic is therefore the fact that we can investigate the democratization of discourse-related sources of power in Internet Governance by focussing on the actual recognition of such discourses, and on the views, ideas, and knowledge they contribute. To summarize: is the global communicative interaction on Internet Governance showing some kind of dispersed, critical and competent influence? What kind of participation do we see?

Norms and world politics: a critical view on the multi-stakeholder principle

14Moving one step further in composing our theoretical framework, we should integrate this focus on discursive democratic practices with reflections concerning the production and role of norms as one of the most relevant, and potentially democratizing, outcomes of global discursive interactions. Do these interactions produce consolidated views and perspectives concerning actors’ behavior?

  • 8 We can highlight two aspects. On the one hand, the language of norms helps to steer our analyses t (...)

15Norms are defined in literature as “standards of appropriate behaviour for actors with a given identity” [Finnermore & Sikkink, 1998: 891]; or, more specifically, as “shared expectations or standards of appropriate behaviour accepted by states and intergovernmental organizations that can be applied to states, intergovernmental organizations and/or non-state actors of various kinds” [Khagram et al., 2002: 14]. It is common to distinguish between regulative and constitutive norms; but it is also possible to identify a category of norms that is evaluative or prescriptive, and therefore particularly relevant to our discussion. The prescriptive quality of “oughtness” sets these norms apart from other kinds of rules [Finnemore & Sikkink, ibidem] while, at the same time, offering a basis to highlight the potential for democratic principles to be embodied in specific norms8.

16Precisely because norms, and their life cycle of emergence-consolidation-internalization, are the result of discursive negotiations, and reflect inter-subjective meanings that are attached to the expectations of appropriate behaviour, we can also reflect on the democratic potential of communication governance, and Internet governance specifically, by making explicit the nexus between practices of discursive democracy and the conditions for democratic norms to emerge and to be consolidated in the IG context.

  • 9 As we have stated elsewhere [Cammaerts & Padovani, 2006], “multi-stakeholderism is perceived by so (...)

17I am here referring to the so-called “multi-stakeholder principle” that is mentioned in all IGF documents and has been widely promoted since the WSIS process, though not always properly problematized9. Multi-stakeholderism – in concept and in practice – does have a real potential for fostering democratization; but it is not as neutral as it is often presented. Thus, different actors hold very different perspectives on who is to be included and excluded; on what degree of power to influence outcomes stakeholders have or should have; and on how the interaction between stakeholders should lead to deliberation and/or actual decision-making. The adoption and application of the multi-stakeholder principle might give civil society organizations (CSOs) and other non-conventional actors more access to political processes, but by no means guarantee an effective ability to have any genuine impact on their outcomes.

18Nevertheless, the WSIS and its follow-up processes, including the IGF, can be seen as small but significant steps towards making global policy processes more participatory and democratic. Change at this structural level materializes itself at an excruciatingly slow pace; and yet the social construction of concepts and innovation in actors’ interactions, often through micro-level transformations, may affect the actual conduct of global politics.

19I therefore suggest that the conceptual nexus between democratic theory, participatory practices and multi-stakeholder communicative interaction must be properly addressed: it therefore makes sense to critically assess what kind of multi-stakeholderism is emerging as a norm in global politics. Differently stated: how does multi-stakeholderism relate to fundamental rights and democratic principles?

Looking at trans-national governance networks

20As Sikkink suggests:

“When we see… norms and discourses as co-determinants of international structure… it becomes theoretically and empirically important to consider how these international norm structures of social purposes are constructed, maintained and transformed” (2002: 302).

21In investigating the Internet Governance domain, we should start by acknowledging its basic features: diversity of actors and interests; dynamics of interaction, processes and power relations; and complexity, due to interplay among sectors, levels, issues. Another dimension can be added when dealing with an emerging policy field, as is the case with Internet Governance, and that is uncertainty: of boundaries, power structures and outcomes.

22These features pose theoretical and methodological challenges: some related to defining the boundaries of our research objects (IG as a policy domain); some concerning the appropriate conceptual framework to be elaborated; some referring to methodologies and techniques to be adopted to investigate emerging trends in actors’ interaction.

23One way to address these challenges is to look at governing arrangements that reflect a network approach: setting network boundaries can contribute to identify what is included and what excluded, thus defining the boundaries of the field; focussing on relations among actors and not (only) on their attributes introduces a focus on dynamic processes and change; a representation of transformations that depends on building or removing ties among actors makes it possible to identify historical and emerging trends.

24We can therefore fruitfully investigate TGNs active in the IG field, conceiving them as:

“[…] horizontal articulations of interdependent, but operationally autonomous actors, who bring into the interaction their specific interests and perspectives and who pursue different goals; who interact through negotiation thus producing norms, and who contribute to the production of public purpose – of a regulative, normative, cognitive and imaginary nature – within a particular area” (PRIN project 2007-2009).

  • 10 We have articulated the heuristic potential of a network approach to communication governance in [ (...)

25To clarify the potential of a network approach, we briefly refer to different disciplinary contributions10.

  • 11 “By creating new issues and placing them on international and national agendas, providing crucial (...)

26Khagram and colleagues [Khagram, 2002] have promoted an interdisciplinary dialogue between scholars from International Relations with a specific interest in the role of norms and ideas in world politics, and the literature on social movements, particularly in a trans-national context. They suggest that trans-national non-governmental actors, by promoting and monitoring norms, exercise forms of “soft” power, to be understood not as “weak” but as the communicative power to shape the agenda and the very manner in which issues are perceived [Sikkink, 2002: 304]. The democratizing potential of such trans-national arrangements rests on the full recognition of the weight of non-governmental actors, their interests and activities, much of which is “directed at changing understandings and interpretation of actors or, in other words, the creation, institutionalization and monitoring of norms” [Khagram et al., 2002: 12]11.

27What is not at the centre of these authors’ reflection is the very engagement of these non-governmental actors in networks of governance aimed at producing public purposes or, as Stone [Stone, 2008] puts it, public policy, thus going beyond their advocacy-oriented strategies. She suggests we should look at word politics as a global agora, at the plurality of actors and multi-authority structures that are involved in the delivery of public policy in the supra-national context, defined as a “public space of policymaking and administration, one where authority is more diffuse, decision-making is dispersed and sovereignty muddled” (ibidem: 1). Stone not only defines what is global public policy, she also offers a vision of global public policy networks as “composed of business, NGOs, and other civil society actors, governments and intergovernmental organizations” (ibidem: 28).

  • 12 In Stone’s view Global Public Policy Networks are, at best, “gateways” to more democratic particip (...)

28Stone explicitly mentions that governance networks are “neutral” with respect to their democratizing potential: they can be a force for democratization “when they create a venue for representation of stakeholders’ interests, a means for wider participation in global governance and a venue for societal voices. However, these same networks can be exclusive, elite and closed to deliberative participation[…]” [Stone, 2008: 32]12.

29From yet another perspective, Sorensen and Torfing [2007/8] focus their work on network governance precisely on the conditions and implication of democratic network governance: governance networks differ according to the institutional, political, discursive context in which they evolve; they can be formal or informal, loose or tight, self-growing or originated from above, short lived or permanent. Yet they share a reflexive kind of rationality and generate generalized trust and political obligations that can be sustained by self-constituted norms over time. In this perspective, governance networks are defined as configurations composed by “a number of private, semi-public and public actors who, on the one hand, are dependent on one another’s resources and capacities” (while being) autonomous. Such actors “interact through negotiations that combine elements of bargaining with elements of deliberation… this bargaining must be embedded in a wider framework of deliberation that facilitates learning and common understanding”.

“Negotiation proceeds within a relatively institutionalized framework… it has a regulative aspect since it provides rules, roles and procedures; a normative aspect since it conveys norms, values and standards; a cognitive element since it generates codes, concepts and specialized knowledge; and an imaginary aspect since it produces identities, ideologies an common hopes”.

30Moreover, governance networks are “relatively self-regulating since they are not part of a hierarchical chain of command… they aim at regulating a particular policy field on the basis of their own ideas, resources and dynamic relations” (ibidem: 9-10).

31In the end, the democratizing potential of governance networks remains open to empirical investigation. We here attempt to provide initial answers by referring to the peculiar features that characterize IG governance networks: the very nature of the global arena/agora; the role and expertise of nongovernmental actors in world politics; the potential of communicative power offered by information and communication technology.

An analytical framework

32An analytical framework is proposed to address the wager of democracy in the IG field, combining this reading of networking interactions, norms consolidation and discursive practices with the democratic mediating principles that have been outlined in the Introduction. The framework is synthesized in the table below.

Table 1. An analytical framework to investigate the wager of democracy in the IG field: integrating normative assumptions with democratic mediating principles.

33The discursive context can be investigated by focusing on its democratic potential: are processes inclusive? Does participation happen on a basis of equality? What is the relevance of competence, skills and knowledge in discussions? These questions relate to democratic mediating principles of openness, inclusion and representation. In our analysis, the democratization of discourse-related sources of power in Internet Governance implies a diversity of views, ideas, and knowledge being articulated in the process. We offer initial answers by focussing on diversity through the analysis of thematic networks in IGF.

34Secondly, the normative dimension is relevant to ‘actors’ interaction and their outcomes; it refers to the inter-subjective definition of the very standard of behaviour according to which actors (re)define their identities and interests. What we have referred to as “multi-stakeholderism” becomes a potentially democratizing norm, if it includes different actors’ possibility of informing and participating in the relevant processes. Also crucial is that interactions foster actors’ accountability towards each other, responsiveness to others’ expectations, and respectfulness of fundamental rights in their discourses and actions. The emergence of norms, including reference to principles and concepts that pertain to multi-actors interventions, can be investigated through the analysis of documents aiming at consolidating fundamental principles for governing the Internet.

35Finally, in looking at trans-national networks, we focus on the relational dynamics: interactions among actors that may reinforce democratic principles of transparency, publicity and horizontal communication. Networks contribute to democratizing world politics “when they create a venue for representation of stakeholder interests, a means for wider participation in global governance and a venue for societal voices” [Stone, 2008]. Do we observe a democratization of communication through networking practice in IG? Do mediating values of democracy inform the IGF practice as far as actors’ use of ICTs is concerned?


  • 13 WSIS Declaration of Principles par. 50 and Plan of Action par. 13.
  • 14 The definition of IG provided by the WGIG states: “Internet governance is the development and appl (...)

36The governance of the Internet has emerged quite recently as a global public policy issue as developments in technology and its management came to be recognized as a strategic and controversial issue at the end of the 1990s, when the Internet Corporation for Assigned Name and Numbers (ICANN) was set up to manage key resources, such as Top Level Domains. More recently, on the occasion of the UN promoted World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), IG quickly became a hot topic in the overall process. During the first phase of the WSIS (Geneva 2002-2003), when it appeared clear that no “common vision of the information society” could be elaborated without taking into consideration the challenges posed by the management of Internet resources, actors could not come to an agreement on what governance of the Net could possibly mean. A Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) was thus officially established13 to provide a working definition of IG14.

  • 15 In 2007 the second IGF was hosted in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Next appointments took place in 2008 (...)

37Such a definition served as a starting point for subsequent official negotiations during the concluding phase of the WSIS (Tunis 2005) when the decision was adopted, by world governments, to set up a specific process focused exclusively on IG. Greece offered to host, in 2006, the first meeting of the Internet Governance Forum15 (IGF), an open space where individuals and organizations concerned with IG-related issues could bring their contributions and share ideas: not as a decision-making structure, but as “a new forum for a multi-stakeholder dialogue on Internet Governance” (UN Department of Public Information, 2006).

38During the first IGF meeting in Athens (November 2006) and on the way to the second meeting in Rio (November 2007) several Dynamic Coalitions (DC) were launched; these are informal groups that reflect the multi-stakeholder approach initiated within the WSIS process. They gather actors from governments, private sector and civil society organizations and are aimed at shaping common discourses on specific issues within the overall IG framework. DCs have neither explicitly defined membership criteria nor procedural guidelines: the only requirement being their multi-actors composition. Besides this, DCs bring together individuals and organizations from all over the world showing how, apart from the physical IGF meetings, most of the interactions taking place among globally dispersed actors is inevitably carried on through digital devices, especially e-mail and electronic platforms.

  • 16 At the time of writing it appears clear that Dynamic coalitions are no longer “central structures” (...)

39We are not concerned here with the effectiveness of such coalitions in the process, and we are well aware that recent developments have proven critical for such structures16. What we are interested in is the model they have provided as a new and potentially more democratic arrangement in global policy.

  • 17 In identifying DCs as concrete networks to be analysed empirically, we have therefore acknowledged (...)

40DCs can be conceived as “trans-national information networks” [Singh, 2002), since they are publicly recognized multi-actor structures operating trans-nationally and focussing on a variety of issues that pertain to the development, diffusion and usage of communication technologies. Furthermore, they provide evidence of the fundamental role played by ICTs in fostering sustainable trans-national interactions17.

41In the second part of this chapter we build on former research and writings on IG and the IGF, where the thematic networks deployed by actors in the on-line space have been investigated; IG related documents, proposed as “constitutional charters” for the Internet, have been analysed; the modus communicandi adopted by those actors through their use of web resources has been assessed. The democratic wager of IG is discussed by connecting empirical evidence from those works to the analytic framework proposed above.

Discursive interaction and the democratic wager18

  • 18 This paragraph builds on findings from [Padovani & Pavan, 2008].
  • 19 The analysis has been conducted using the Issue crawler software developed by Govcom. org and acco (...)

42We have made use of digital harvesting software to trace and visualize thematic networks that developed, through virtual ties in the web-sphere, among actors engaged in the IGF process19. What these issue networks on the web showed was a web-based thematic space of discourse that paralleled off-line debates where the management of Internet strategic resources was being discussed. Nodes in the on-line networks were websites of organizations, online documents, databases, and single web pages such as wikis or blogs. Ties among nodes represent links between actors in the online space, in other words signs of recognition amongst actors within a discursive space.

43First we looked at what kinds of actors were involved in the web-based “conversation” about IG in order to assess diversity among them, and to see if we could actually speak of a multi-actor conversation. An initial answer to these questions was given by looking at the typology of nodes in the networks, identified through their domain extension. “.org” nodes clearly prevailed, and yet this extension relates to at least three different types of actors engaged in the conversation. On the one hand, composing a well connected cluster of actors, we find organizations that have traditionally dealt with (and de facto managed) the governance of the Internet in the past decades: ICANN, IANA, IETF and the like. They represent the “traditional” nongovernmental-mainly-technical-approach to IG: one that stems from the structural evolution of the Net and related infrastructures and has developed “naturally” over time, with its own logic. Then we found the more dispersed galaxy of agencies such as the ITU, WIPO, the UN and UNESCO: organizations that are supposed to orientate the management of global resources, and represent the traditional logic of intergovernmental decision-making. Finally the .org category also includes organizations such as IP Justice or Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) that are expressions of civic engagement in the IG discussion.

44Moreover, our mapping exercise showed that IGF acted as a catalyst for many organizations, favouring an increase in actors’ diversity: analyses showed that over time the landscape has become more diversified than the initial technical and institutional actors; while nodes that initially played a central role, such as the ICANN, were gradually challenged by new realities.

45In terms of ‘actors’ relevance in the network, and therefore potential influence in the governance of the Internet, we could see that interconnected clusters, and central nodes within them, could play a more relevant role in the debate than single non-strongly-connected nodes and actors; since connected clusters entail a coherent language, a shared logic, history and vision, and therefore a stronger capacity to influence the trans-national conversation. This potentially more powerful position was nevertheless partly counterbalanced by the presence of other actors who, though peripheral in our maps, were representative of alternative interests and, possibly, emerging issues. Moreover, some of them played bridging roles in the network, fostering connections among otherwise disconnected clusters and nodes and therefore contributing to the consolidation of overall thematic networks.

46The diversity of actors has certainly grown over time, though we noted the absence of both the academic community and private sector entities from these web-based conversations as a problematic feature, to be further investigated.

47The fact that traditional actors (technical and institutional) and newer actors co-exist in the virtual space, especially after the first IGF (Athens 2006), and (at least partly) recognize each other as legitimate parties in the debate, suggests that the diversity of issues has also grown over time. The presence in the thematic networks of civic organizations such as Consumer Project on Technology or Reporters sans Frontiers, alongside those organizations which have been historically engaged with the governance of the Internet, parallels the widening range of themes included in the umbrella concept of IG. Nevertheless, the relevance of traditional actors in the networks indicates the on-going centrality of issues traditionally connected with an infrastructural view of IG, such as the management of critical resources, security problems and technical standards. Overall what emerged from IG issue networks on the Web was a dynamically growing plurality of themes and positions. From a prevailing focus on technical matters the discussion has gradually opened up to issues concerning human rights promotion and defence, universal access to knowledge and resources, free software and knowledge sharing.

48A final question in our investigation concerned actors’ capacity to (re) present and express their differences in the debate, from a geographical, linguistic and cultural point of view, acknowledging that, if we are to fully appreciate the opportunities that are linked to multi-stakeholder practices, diversity in the conversation should be assessed not only by looking at trans-national and supra-national actors, but also at subjects coming from different cultural contexts as well as local constituencies, who should be given the opportunity to express specific views and needs.

49From this point of view we could not find a globally rich and diverse conversation: our analysis shows that local or national nodes rarely enter web-based issue networks. Slightly more visible was the regional level, typically brought into the conversation through the presence of regional registrars, linked with the technical cluster of traditional managers of Internet resources. When more politically oriented actors from different regions seem to contribute to the debate, this happened through a very institutional approach (i.e. UNECA for the African continent).

50Finally, almost all the actors included in thematic networks, that are contributing to the definition of how Internet resources should be managed in the future, come from North-Western areas of the world. Furthermore, besides the overly unbalanced geographical representation, the fact that English appeared clearly as the dominant language through which issues are framed, definitions are given and relevant knowledge is produced, is also problematic. It was thus evident that these imbalances do not contribute to a rich and articulated understanding of worldwide realities, needs and expectations.

51Reading these findings in the light of the proposed analytical framework, we can say that IG has in fact witnessed a shift from the centrality of state actors in supra-national settings towards a growing diversity of actors: different agents are entering global debates, bringing different visions and interests and contributing different ways of conceiving such a space; while institutional settings, such as the IGF, position themselves as opportunities for convergence and facilitators of a pluralistic debate more than as decision-making spaces. What remains to be assessed is the actual impact of these different actors: if and how new actors, occupying growingly central and brokerage positions in trans-national networks, are able to influence discursive processes over time remains an open issue. At the same time, issues of global inclusion and exclusion remain open and problematic: the Global South, and in particular its localities, with their languages and ways of expressing different concerns and needs, do not yet seem to have found adequate space in IG conversations; nor do we find clear signs of interconnection between local contexts and the global discussion, or between IG-related issues and other global issues such as sustainability in development. From this point of view, the principles of inclusion and representation remain as a major challenge to democratic IG.

The formation of norms and the democratic wager

52We can elaborate on the normative component of our analytical framework, starting by elaborating on the multi-stakeholder concept, which has been fostered in IG debates from the beginning. Multi-stakeholderism has been defined as the set of:

“Processes which aim to bring together all major stakeholders in a new form of communication and decision-finding (and possibly decision-making) structure on a particular issue; are based on the recognition of the importance of achieving equity and accountability in communication between stakeholders; involve equitable representation of three or more stakeholder groups and their views; are based on democratic principles of transparency and participation; aim to develop partnerships and strengthen networks between and among stakeholders.” [Hemmati, 2002, p. 19].

53It can be considered a response by national governments, as well as international organizations, to criticisms regarding a democratic deficit at the international levels of governance. As such, it has been championed by many as a way to bring “the citizen” closer to decision-making processes at the international level, and making such processes more legitimate and accountable.

  • 20 The analysed texts are: John Perry Barlow, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”, 1996 (...)

54Elsewhere we have argued that multi-stakeholderism is an under-theorized concept and remains a highly controversial one [Cammaerts & Padovani, 2006); yet we suggest it may provide a useful reference to address the democratic wager of IG if we unpack the notion and analyze the “real life” of democratic principles that can be associated with multi-actor processes. Here we do this by looking at what principles emerge from documents that have been elaborated over time. In particular we have conducted a lexicon-content analysis of ten declarations aiming at creating a Bill of Rights for the Internet, elaborated between 1996 and 200620. This set of documents can be seen as a discursive context, since the elaboration of such texts is often a collective exercise, where different authors share frames and negotiate terms in a plural dialogue aimed at reaching consensus on substance and wordings with a view to creating the base for juridical institutions for the Internet.

55In reviewing these texts, inclusion, diversity and participation are principles through which the democratic content of multi-actors arrangements can be articulated, particularly in connection with fundamental human rights. Furthermore, we are interested in outlining how far principles that are identified as normative foundations for the future of the Internet and its governance do include and value the need, for involved actors, to be accountable to other actors and to the public (and users) in general, and responsive to their needs.

56Our analyses have shown that, through the years, discourses on human rights in the digital age have evolved with a very strong focus on the social dimension. General principles, such as freedom, diversity and inclusion, are often mentioned, thus confirming the possibility that a shared vision of human rights in knowledge societies could be in the making. At the same time, our analysis showed that different terminologies and languages are adopted by governmental and nongovernmental actors to “describe” Internet and the challenges of communication societies: governmental speakers tend to focus on ICTs applications; on specificities of the digital context; on control, legality, and restriction matters; while non­governmental speakers focus on human subjects and their diversity/ plurality, highlighting responsibilities according to an explicitly global perspective.

57Moreover, governmental documents reflect a conventional view of who are the actors on the global scene: they are states and inter-governmental organizations, paralleled by other actors (private sector, civil society) conceived as rather homogenous and monolithic realities. Non-governmental actors, on the contrary, acknowledge a more diversified world of trans-national actors and subjects entitled to fundamental rights: peoples, communities, women, and marginalized groups. This finding supports the hypothesis that multi-stakeholderism remains a controversial concept, and is unlikely to develop as a ‘norm’ in the sense suggested by [Finnemore and Sikkink 1998], if there is no consensus on the very nature of the actors to be included in multi-actor conversations.

58Our corpus also displays a difficult balance between the more consolidated human rights tradition and digital complexity: sixty years of international machinery devoted to fundamental rights do not appear to be fully acknowledged in the digital-oriented discourse, as problematic absences concern women’s rights, minorities and children’s rights; as well as issues concerning peace and security, environment and sustainability.

59Furthermore, if we search the documents looking for accountable actors and responsive measures, what we find is a very limited reference to these principles, which are mainly expressed by civil society actors in a specific setting, the WSIS, paralleled by the Council of Europe’s subsequent documents. Not a major concern of constitutive statements, the idea of responsive and accountable actors in IG emerges only in 2003 and remains confined to very few ‘speakers’.

60According to our framework, if discourses and documents that contribute to the social creation of the normative foundation for IG have a potentially democratizing function, that function is only partially carried on when no mention is made of democratic principles of accountability and responsiveness, and no space is given to their expression; while the vision of accompanying human rights does not reflect the plurality of rights and freedoms that we know are at stake in contemporary societies.

Networking through technology and the democratic wager

61International politics has traditionally been characterized by secrecy of information and limited access to communicative structures such as intergovernmental organizations; as well as by exclusive diplomatic rituals, behind-closed-doors decision-making processes, hierarchies among actors and centralization of power resources [Hockings, 2006]. New technologies, among other factors, are challenging this situation through a number of inherently built potentialities: easier and more affordable access to information leads to higher expectations in terms of transparency, for instance through electronic forums and consultations. This translates into broad opportunities for participation, but it also raises demands for more open and democratic decision-making processes.

62In looking at contemporary political processes, it is necessary to adopt a comprehensive approach to communication modalities, one capable of properly weighting the different modes through which communication creates and nurtures world politics. Transparency in information sharing that generates greater public awareness, horizontal interaction that helps overcoming traditional hierarchies, and the nexus between off-line and on-line relations that produce new knowledge, can therefore be seen as three spheres of innovation in the conduct of world politics.

63We have addressed these issues by looking at how organizational actors involved in IGF debates position themselves in the web-sphere through their adoption and usage of technical functionalities, if and how they invest in interactive modalities, if and how they do this consistently with their innovative view of technology and the guiding principles they publicly promote. Labelling such a comprehensive view of communication as actors’ modus communicandi, we have addressed the following questions: do actors fully exploit the potentialities brought by information technologies in terms of access to information, interaction and collective production of content? To what extent does actors’ typology contribute to the explanation of existing differences in technology use? Do actors involved in IGF debates actually plan their communicative spaces with the aim of strengthening the networks they are engaged with? Finally, what features characterize the interplay between on-line and off-line interactions?

64For each dimension of actors’ communication – (the way of conceiving) transparency in the conduct or processes, the possibility of horizontal exchanges and the interplay between off-line and on-line interactions – our website-focused analysis of actors engaged in IGF helped identifying critical trends.

65The first dimension we explored was transparency and, more precisely, the different ways in which actors understand this principle and promote it through their actions. Indeed, if it is true that information technologies favour greater transparency, it should not be taken for granted that all actors understand and value transparency in the same way, nor that it constitutes a priority for all of them. Our analysis, in fact, revealed that in most cases actors belonging to civic organizations make a plea for enhanced transparency in political processes, differently from governmental actors who tend to stress the idea of control.

66This distinction between governmental and non-governmental actors is a general one, while the actual situation is more nuanced: institutional actors, particularly at the national level, have transformed their public discourse to include transparency as a central element in the effort to redefine and improve their relations to the citizen, in a search for consensus and legitimacy. Nevertheless, the commitment to more open and accessible modes of political conduct does not seem to have expanded to supranational spheres of information governance. Also, even among non-governmental actors, different emphases in fostering transparency can be found: private sector entities do not show any interest for the principle; but even among public interest groups, transparency does not always emerge as a priority.

67Secondly, we looked at horizontality in communication exchanges characterizing the Dynamic Coalitions on IG. These structures were created with the aim of fostering dialogue among actors of different natures – governmental and non-governmental - in specific subfields of the IG domain. Given the trans-national space in which DCs operate, the role played by ICTs has been determinant in favouring information exchange as well as in creating new ties among previously disconnected actors. Nevertheless, our analyses showed that only in a few cases did organizations that are members of one or more IGF Dynamic Coalitions link to such horizontal structures on their websites, or even make explicit mention of their involvement in the IGF process. There seems to be a gap between the active involvement of organizations in the off-line Internet Governance debate, and the relevance those same actors publicly attribute to this involvement in their online operations; it is as if the innovative horizontal mode of interaction that has developed off-line has not yet found an equivalent in the web-space. This ambiguity between the potential and the actual realization of horizontal communication patterns puts into question the rhetoric according to which the loose multi-stakeholder arrangements experienced in the IGF context could be transferred to other policy fields. After all, it is the actors’ sincere conviction (and investment) in multi-actor processes that could make a difference in actually bringing about innovation.

68The potential offered by technology to foster horizontality could be realized more explicitly in support given to off-line dynamics; yet it appears clearly that the full realization of horizontal exchanges is hampered not only by the diversity in the nature of actors, but also by the fact that actors differ in the speed with which they implement innovation with respect to their existing practices. Actors engaged in IG information networks clearly proceed at different speeds concerning the creation and use of new languages and new technologies as tools to support their engagement in world politics. This reflects different levels of competence in approaching technologies, but it also outlines different motivations for innovating through technologies, between those actors who seek to maintain traditional quotas of power and those new actors who see technological innovation as a source of influence. To the extent that different actors walk at different speeds, horizontality of exchanges, which could be enhanced and strengthened through the use of “artefacts” and sustained by ad hoc “human activity”, remains more a vision than a reality.

69The last element we have analysed, connected to the previous one, is the coherence that actors show in coordinating online and offline initiatives. More particularly, we have examined to what extent actors validate and strengthen their online action through the offline and vice versa. Results showed a low level of coordination and consistency among the two worlds, which do not appear as complementary but rather as disconnected: in very few cases initiatives that started in the off-line world were supported by on-line action. Generally speaking, initiatives were seldom complemented by remote participation mechanisms, nor were online petitions publicized offline. One problematic consequence of this lack of integration in the use of media is that the vast majority of people, who are e-illiterate and cannot access either official meetings or the Internet, will hardly become aware of the stakes connected to IG global discussions. As a consequence, the kind of soft power that an informed general publics could potentially exert, amplifying the horizontality of exchange beyond those few avant-gardes or epistemic communities that are already knowledgeable and engaged, is not likely to be activated.

70Our starting point was the idea that technology as an artefact could promote transparency in policy processes, thus overcoming traditional diplomatic secrecy and enlarging the basis for the exercise of instrumental power; technology as human activity could favour horizontal exchanges thus challenging traditional hierarchies and fostering change in structural power; technology as knowledge would translate this potential into reality by constituting cognitive spaces inclined towards diffused forms of authority. Our analysis of how actors involved in Internet Governance make use of technologies does not allow a very optimistic conclusion: evidence from actors’ on-line modes of communication show that transparency is an issue that is only taken up and promoted by those actors who perceive the challenge of instrumental power as vital: those civil society organizations who have few resources other than knowledge to play out in the global context, but who have a thorough understanding of the challenges related to transparency and access to information, if they are to become meaningful interlocutors in policy contexts.

71Also the shift from hierarchic modes of interaction to more horizontal practices, though put into practice in the off-line context of the IGF through the Dynamic Coalition arrangement, does not seem to have become a model, nor a strategic objective, for most actors in their on-line operations: in their actual use of on-line resources, only a few of them demonstrate the will to really strengthen and give visibility to the horizontal networks developed within such Coalitions. This appears problematic with respect to transformations in structural power, if we consider that actors’ capacity to influence rules and institutions – including making innovative practices perceived as viable precedents to transform world politics – is closely linked to their ability to communicate such experiences outside the restricted networks, and to render the issues, stakes and alternative solutions widely and publicly known.


72In this chapter I have addressed the democratic wager of the Internet Governance Forum by proposing a substantial reading of democracy in the global context, and by proposing an analytic framework to assess the relevance of mediating democratic principles – of diversity, inclusion, representation, accountability, responsiveness, openness, transparency and publicity – in IG debates.

73In order to assess the quality of democratic developments in IG, attention should be paid to different aspects. Firstly, it is important to acknowledge the discursive dimension that is constitutive of the identities and interests of the actors involved, and to focus on how actors engage in processes (both off-line and on-line) whereby they contribute to defining the character of their conversations as “constitutional structures”. Are these conversations really diverse? Are they inclusive? What kinds of interests are actually represented? Former analyses of IGF have shown that there has been a growing diversity of the actors engaged in debates, where governments and intergovernmental organizations are increasingly associated with non-governmental entities, epistemic communities and multi-stakeholder networks of actors. The multi-vocal conversation may therefore foster actors’ re-definition and understanding of supra-national political processes as far as the plurality of legitimate interests to be expressed. Nevertheless, two issues remain open to critical consideration: the impact of actors’ respective contribution to the process, and therefore the real weight of their participation; and the ongoing challenge of making the conversation truly global, able to include the plurality of local needs, cultural and linguistic perspectives, especially those coming from the Global South.

74Secondly I suggested it is important to assess if and to what extent the language that actors adopt, in documents that are expected to provide normative foundations for IG, reflects democratic concerns, particularly in relation to the fact that multi-stakeholder processes, such as those that have characterized the IGF context, should imply actors’ responsibility in their acting together. Here the focus is on how they conceive commitments and responsibilities, including accountability and responsiveness in their agenda and practices. Again, our investigation has shown that the two democratic principles of accountability and responsiveness do not emerge as central in IG-related language. While reference to basic principles of freedom, diversity, access and participation is very prominent, accountability - both internal to the process and external towards the public - remains a marginal component of the normative framework actors are drafting.

75Finally, I proposed to look at the publicizing of the IGF process towards the outside by focussing not on the official websites and adopted documents, but on the social practices of communication adopted by participating entities. In this case, the actualization of the democratic potential of technology was investigated by looking at the implementation of communication channels, the importance attributed to transparency in the conduct of processes, the possibility of horizontal exchanges, and the interplay between off-line and on-line interactions. What emerged from investigation was the fact that innovation in the conduct of political processes (for instance the democratizing potential of multi-actor interactions) in a domain such as IG, that is centred on the opportunities offered by mediating digital technologies, does not seem to be inclined to take full advantage of those very technologies to expand the transparency and the publicity of the process itself, beyond the official, physical venues where IGF takes place.

76Now that the first round of IGF (2006-2010) has come to a close, the democratic wager remains open and calls for further reflection: signs of democratic development should be more thoroughly analyzed throughout the process, adopting a longitudinal reading and looking at how constitutive conversations, norm formation and communicative practices have changed over the past five years. Moreover, what the proposed framework suggests is the need to integrate the analysis of the process with the analysis of actors’ language, as they have evolved since the first IGF in 2006: more prominent democratic mediating principles may be observed in the evolution of discourses, but we should always be concerned with how actors themselves practice and implement those very principles in their on-going operations, including beyond IGF.


1 “Governance is achieved by the creation of interactive, socio-political structures and processes stimulating communication between the actors involved” [Kooiman, 2003, p. 3].

2 Information and communication have emerged as “one of the newest and most internationalized areas of public policy and institutional change” [Mueller et al., 2004].

3 See Laura De Nardis with her Protocol Politics [De Nardis, 2009b].

4 Most analyses have been conducted in the context of a Research Project of National Relevance (PRIN) funded by the Italian Ministry for University and jointly conducted by the Universities of Trento and Padova in 2007-2009.

5 For further elaboration on this approach to substantial democracy see: [O’Donnel, 1994; Mastropaolo, 2003; Morlino, 2003] and the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (2002). For application of such approach to the empirical analysis of communication-related policy processes, see also [Padovani, 2005] and [Padovani, Tuzzi, Nesti, 2007].

6 Amongst the recent works on global democracy: [Holden, 2000], [Aksu & Camilleri, 2002], [Gould, 2004), [Held & Archibugi, 2005] [Dryzek, 2006], [Jacobs, 2007], [Bohman, 2007], [Archibugi, 2008]

7 Furthermore, this focus on discourses allows to think of “discursive representation” as a way to overcome the problems often raised by the difficulties of representing individuals and groups in a trans-national setting [Dryzek & Niemeyer, 2006], thus fostering a “politics of ideas”.

8 We can highlight two aspects. On the one hand, the language of norms helps to steer our analyses toward considering the components of social institutions and the way normative elements are re-negotiated into new arrangements over time, to create new patterns of politics [Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998]. On the other hand, norms do not emerge in a vacuum, but in contested normative spaces and are often articulated by “norms entrepreneurs” supported by organizational platforms, so that they can be defined, fostered, and agreed upon until they resonate, as new frames, with broad public understanding, as “new ways of talking about and understanding issues” (ibidem: 897).

9 As we have stated elsewhere [Cammaerts & Padovani, 2006], “multi-stakeholderism is perceived by some to be a solution to crises in the legitimacy of international (and national) institutions, as well as a way to foster more effective, transparent and legitimate decision-making processes concerning complex contemporary issues”. Here the reference to mediating democratic principles is very explicit; but we should also be aware that if multi-stakeholderism has been formalized in policy documents and has become part of a supra-national public discourse, it has, however, also become a passe-partout concept, widely referred to by actors of different nature, often making the implicit assumption that there exists a consensus on how participatory political processes should be organized and managed. For critical analyses of the multi-stakeholder principle and related practices, see: [Cammaerts & Carpentier, 2006], [Cammaerts & Padovani, 2006], [Padovani & Pavan, 2011].

10 We have articulated the heuristic potential of a network approach to communication governance in [Padovani & Pavan, 2011]. See also [Pavan, 2009].

11 “By creating new issues and placing them on international and national agendas, providing crucial information to actors, and most importantly by creating and publicizing new norms and discourses, transnational advocacy groups help restructure world politics” [Sikkink, 2002: 306]. Sikkink is fully aware of the double challenge of enhancing trans­national democracy - “to what degree do trans-national networks enhance democracy in international institutions and how democratic are trans-national NGOs, networks and coalitions themselves?” (ibidem: 311) - and suggests a list of “attributes” on the basis of which networks could claim moral authority to act on the global scene: impartiality and independence, reliability, representativeness, accountability and transparency (ibidem: 313­314).

12 In Stone’s view Global Public Policy Networks are, at best, “gateways” to more democratic participatory arrangements, the reality being that “the global agora is managed by the elite trans-national policy community” [Stone, 2008: 32] composed of internationalized public sector officials, international civil servants and trans-national professionals. Confronting this position, it may be interesting to note what Guy Peters suggests in the Italian political science journal RISP: “La mera esistenza di network, partnership e altre forme di coinvolgere gli stakeholders, cambia profondamente la natura della democrazia” (2008: 456). We could then ask: is this also true for the transnational context? As Sikkink states: “…the appropriate standard against which to measure the representativity of NGOs is against the existing degree of democracy in international institutions and in international governance” (2002: 315).

13 WSIS Declaration of Principles par. 50 and Plan of Action par. 13.

14 The definition of IG provided by the WGIG states: “Internet governance is the development and application by Governments, the private sector and civil society, in their respective roles, of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programmes that shape the evolution and the use of the Internet” (WGIG 2005).

15 In 2007 the second IGF was hosted in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Next appointments took place in 2008 in Hyderabad (India), in 2009 in Egypt and in 2010 in Lithuania. A second round began in 2011 in Kenya.

16 At the time of writing it appears clear that Dynamic coalitions are no longer “central structures” around which IGF debates are developing. See [De la Chapelle, 2010].

17 In identifying DCs as concrete networks to be analysed empirically, we have therefore acknowledged the interplay between off-line and on-line actors’ interactions: the off-line IG debate has taken place in a context – that of official IGF meetings - that was hardly accessible to those who did not have the time, knowledge or financial resources to travel and attend meetings in Geneva, Tunis, Athens or elsewhere. We have therefore assumed “virtuality” as an inner component of Internet governance arrangements, as it has been often suggested that constraints to participation may be less dramatic in the online world. Finally online interactions may have contributed to the creation of a discursive space where issues are framed and actors’s interests shaped [Padovani & Pavan, 2007].

18 This paragraph builds on findings from [Padovani & Pavan, 2008].

19 The analysis has been conducted using the Issue crawler software developed by Govcom. org and accompanying tools. The issue networks constituted online, and traceable through the crawling software, are the result of linking strategies among URLs, and offer a visual image of the degree of reciprocal recognition among actors operating around specific issues, in the web sphere. This software operates through co-link analysis, creating maps where visualized nodes/sites are those linked by at least two of the starting points identified for the analysis. The content of the ties between websites might vary inside the same network, as motivations that justify the linking among web resources might vary. It should furthermore be noticed that issue networks are not neutral just because they are “placed” in a virtual space: they rather integrate our knowledge of debates that take place offline. For background information on the logic of co-link analysis that is at the basis of the crawler and further information see: and

20 The analysed texts are: John Perry Barlow, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”, 1996; Robert B. Gelman, “Draft proposal: Declaration of Human Rights in Cyberspace”, 1997; Stephen Page, “Human Rights Declaration of Individual Rights in Cyberspace”, version 1.0, 1998.; Charter of civil rights in a sustainable knowledge society 2003; Statement on communication rights 2003; Civil Society Declaration to the World Summit on the Information Society 2003; Council of Europe Declaration of the Committee of Ministers on human rights and the rule of law in the Information Society 2005; Charter of Rights of Citizens in Knowledge Societies 2006; APC Internet Rights Charter”, November 2006; David Casacuberta and Max Senges, “Basic Considerations on the Governance of Cyberspace”. Committee for a Democratic UN, October 2006. The 10 texts were organized into a corpus and analysed by means of TALTAC software (http:// The variables considered were the year of drafting, the author’s name and its status (governmental or nongovernmental). Analyses were conducted on a vocabulary including single graphic forms (GF) and complex textual units (CTUs).

Table des illustrations

Légende Table 1. An analytical framework to investigate the wager of democracy in the IG field: integrating normative assumptions with democratic mediating principles.
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Senior Lecturer in Political Science and International Relations, Department of Historical and Political Studies, University of Padova, Italy.

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