A Debate on Multi-stakeholderism vs. Multilateralism


Today, cyberspace is governed in an environment where decisions are taken by multiple actors, including governments, businesses, civil society, and individuals or briefly “stakeholders.” This bottom-up policymaking aims to place all stakeholders on an equal level for a decentralized governance; however, it fails to stop US government and American companies from becoming more equal than others, a problem that bothers roughly more than half of the world governments. These governments, led by Russia and China, demand to reshape the governance of internet on a multilateral base under the UN umbrella to obtain an authoritative role and sovereignty zones in the so-called borderless and open-to-all internet. Before the militarization or de facto fragmentation of cyberspace will make it even harder, the US has to decide to lead multinational efforts to regulate cyberspace with other states and should find ways to preserve the freedom of internet in this new system.


The invention of internet revolutionized our world view in many ways. Using notions drawn from the history of economics, some economists name it as the “Third Industrial Revolution.” For security studies, this space has already become the “Fifth Domain” in addition to those of land, sea, air and space. Some people even dare to claim that cyberspace is going to be a “Parallel Universe” in the “not so far” future. Almost every company, institution and government has been forced to reshape themselves to meet the physical and virtual requirements of internet. This new connector of activities made a significant progress in the last decade of the 20th century and with the new millennium these technologies started to affect all walks of life. The internet became more and more integrated into peoples’ lives every single day, and not only individuals but also societies became more interconnected. Digital networks have gradually been the backbone of economies, governments, militaries, academia, and societies. The virtual space where this network operates and the infrastructure where the connection between computer systems occurs is called “cyber space” (Goodman, 2018). The impacts of the use of this space have also been catalyst for the globalization through its ability to enable people to communicate without any borders, in other words; interconnection of cultures and ideologies on an unimaginable speed and intensity.

The use of internet has become so widespread that it is likened to the biggest country in Mihr’s words; “If cyberspace were a country, it would be the largest and most populated in the world, albeit one without any constitutions or government.” (Mihr, 2014) The last part of Mihr’s sentence refers to the lack of a common regulation, regime, or set of rules in the cyberspace which is in perfect fit with the very nature of the largely non-organized way of the development of the internet. Here comes the question of many: “Is there any problem with structure?”

Multi-Stakeholder Governance Model

The answer to the above question depends on how we look at it. From a technical perspective, the cyberspace is governed almost flawless. It is not easy to see complaints about the ill-governance of internet. If we see through the lenses of Joseph Nye, we will not see an organized chaos but a grand order which he calls a “regime complex.” In the traditional understanding, a “regime” is either an institution or a set of institutionalized practices that function in accordance with a set of norms or rules. The current use of the word in international relations refers to the international agencies that lie out of the control of the governments. In this meaning, there is obviously not a single regime governing cyberspace, but it hosts a big deal of large/small, formal/informal regimes seen in the chart below that is created by Joseph S. Nye in 2014.

Nye’s chart is a good starting point to understand the current framework of internet governance and the regime complex. In an effort to explain the chart better, Judy Towers lists the organizations on this chart in four groups (Towers, 2014). First one being “Authoritative Organizations” (located at the center) which have the authority to create the standards and policies and make changes to implement those to function the internet better. The most important one is “ICANN” that I will discuss in detail later in this article. The second group is “Coalition Organizations” as Government Groupings who have joined together upon the same goals for internet governance. “Forum organizations, ” the third group, are shaped by the conferences that are attended by government, regulatory, and coalition organizations, including entities in advisory roles from the technical and academic communities. The last group, “the Advisory Role organizations” – not included in this chart – suggested by Towers aims to aid or impact governments and other institutions on issues related to internet. Nye’s “Regime Complex” explains this multifaceted structure of internet governance below;

“a set of loosely coupled norms and institutions ranking somewhere between an integrated institution that imposes regulation through hierarchical rules, and highly fragmented practices with no identifiable core and non-existent linkages.” (Nye, 2014)

At this point, it would be best to start explaining the “multi-stakeholder governance” approach which fits pretty well in this definition of regime complex(es.) The multi-stakeholder governance is an environment where decisions are taken by governments, businesses, civil society, and individuals in coordination, placing all of these bodies on an equal level for a decentralized governance model and based on bottom-up policymaking. It needs to be said that frameworks for this kind of a transnational governance already exist in sectors like financial regulation, environmental policy, and global health all of which cannot be managed on a national basis. In cyberspace, this governance method also aims to mimic the “borderless and open-to-all” nature of internet (Raymond, 2018). Authority over distinct functions are distributed among various actors and there is a general lack of an authoritative role for states. Multi-stakeholder governance stresses the assumed effort to bring all stakeholders to the table and it has evolved alongside the internet and as the hallmark of its governance as the “internet model.”

One of the authoritative institutions on cyber governance, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has always been a hotly debated institution of this governance model, and it is the best example to clarify the multiple participant governance as a “heterogeneous polyarchy.” Robert Dahl describes it as a “system of governance in which power is invested in numerous actors, a theory based on the assumption of popular sovereignty and political equality (C. Kurre, 2017). ICANN was formed in 1998 as a not-for-profit, public-benefit organization to operate the internet’s “Domain Name System,” and allocate (or coordinate the allocation) and assign the Internet’s Protocol addresses, which means in general that ICANN is responsible for coordinating the procedures of cyber world and ensuring the network’s stable and secure operation (Dissertation, 2012). Currently, this private sector organization, based in California, manages and oversees the most critical foundations of the internet with legal status under US law. This issue makes national governments more interested in ICANN policy decisions since internet policy intersects with national laws in various cases as intellectual property, privacy, law enforcement, and cybersecurity. ICANN, as the prototype of the multi-stakeholder governance, is also criticized for its features like insufficient government participation, too much American government oversight, lacking legitimacy, and its contractual relationship with the US government.

As it is seen in the ICANN discussion, not all see the cyberspace through the lenses of Nye. The qualities of the overall governance of cyber space seem a functioning chaos where all sorts of actors are trying to define the rules or turn their own particular interests into codes of action so that they can enlarge their space for action to obtain more resources. The term “functioning chaos” (Zeng, 2017) is used to point to the decentralized architecture and distribution of power to the periphery and individual users, namely multi-stakeholder governance. The concerns of the opponents of the multi-stakeholder governance will be discussed later on. What they suggest instead of the current system is called “multilateral governance model.”

Multilateral Governance Model

Multilateralism is an institutional form founded to coordinate the relations among three or more states in accordance with pre-determined and generalized principles of conduct. The use of the term after the second World War focused mainly on opposing unilateral acts or bilateral arrangements made to enhance the leverage of the powerful over the weak. Multilateralism initially aimed to decrease international conflict by the use of global governance of the “many” as defined by Miles Kahler (Brotman, 2015). At the time when it was presented, states in the whole world were gathering around different tables, as the sole legal actors, on the basis of the Westphalian Order. What the proponents of multilateralism demand today is the same thing; making states the only actors and build a governance for greater multilateral and top-down administration of the internet in the name of social order, national sovereignty, and tighter control of information flows. The keyword here is “sovereignty.” Sovereign nations are demanding control over “networks and data” of internet in the global context. They are asking for the establishment of a “multinational, democratic, and transparent” governance of cyberspace through an agency founded under the umbrella of the United Nations, leaving transnational corporations, NGOs, scientists, or law experts, only in a consultative role. (Demchak & Dombrowski, 2011)

To put the sides of the debate more concretely, I named the multi-stakeholder camp as the “status quoists” and the multilateralism camp as the “revisionists.” In this debate, United States, Europe, and other Western countries (including Japan and South Korea) are on the status quo side and Third World countries (or Group of 77) led clearly by China and Russia on the other side. Latter allies are found among relatively less powerful countries in terms of internet development and they constitute the majority in terms of numbers of countries. On the other camp, even though Europeans insist more on the states’ role as the defender of the interests of citizens, the US has the support of the group that resists the purely intergovernmental governance approach. In this context, status quoists need to preserve the current situation of decentralized/distributed, global/transnational internet governance and management of the worldwide internet architecture the way it rests in the hands of a worldwide cluster of industry, academic, and non-governmental actors. Revisionists are trying to change the governance into a more centralized form which is supposed to function on national sovereignty based intergovernmental platforms. Revisionists are not only trying to improve the management, but “internet” itself since the change they offer is a move to end the very nature of the internet as an open-to-all, borderless, worldwide medium. Their ostensible demand is giving national governments a larger role in managing the global internet. This will unite all the governance of the internet under one specific agency or preferably turn International Telecommunication Union (ITU) into the basic organization for the construction of the new global Internet governance system. ITU is a specialized agency of United Nations responsible for coordinating the shared global use of the radio spectrum, satellite orbits, and worldwide technical standards while improving the telecommunication infrastructure in the developing world. The only actors on this union are the states.

Academic Debate over Cyber Governance

The origins of this engaging and controversial debate go back to the revisionist demands that came first in the form of security concerns. A letter sent by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov to the UN Secretary-general in 1998 may be the first visible move. It was noted in this letter that the creation of information weapons could cause serious security threats, and Russia wants to develop international law regimes to prevent the misuse of information technologies and ensure global stability and security (Glen, 2014). Ivanov compared the destructive effects of the information weapons to that of the weapons of mass destruction. A draft resolution on “Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security” was also attached to the letter. US position after the letter was trying to dismiss this Russian aspiration to establish information security as an essential aspect of international peace. US was successful at this effort thanks to the support of other developed countries, but Russian security concerns have turned out to be right by their own cyberattacks against Estonia, Georgia and Ukraine. However, revisionist worries about the need for international cyber regime were also justified by US governments’ misuse of the current cyber governance.

First prominent misuse “.iq Domain Name” occurred in 2002. A grand jury of the US indicted a private company “Infocom” on charges that they exported computer equipment to Libya and Syria. ICANN had granted this company the responsibility to register web addresses for Iraq, and it was ensuring that internet traffic is properly routed under Iraq’s domain name .iq. The jury put the “.iq” domain on ice and ended the existence of all servers in cyberspace (Raymond, 2018). In 2005, an official report produced by the United Nations working group on internet governance pointed out that Domain Names System root zone files and systems were under “unilateral control by the United States Government.”

The second prominent and more (in)famous event was the PRISM Scandal where the National Security Agency of the US was caught red handed in 2015 cyber spying throughout the world. A former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employee Edward Snowden had revealed NSA’s network monitoring action on the grounds of national security through the PRISM program. These two events proved that US could maintain sovereignty control over the of ICANN’s regulatory authority and make other sovereign nations’ network facilities legitimate targets by its ruling over internet giants like Google, Facebook, Microsoft etc. This means double standards when it comes to the concept of Internet sovereignty.

Theoretical Aspects of the Debate on Cyber Governance

Anarchy and Sovereignty

In this aspect of the debate, I suggest that the revisionists resort to the realist arguments or discourse; status quo, on the other side, resorts to liberalism. Both sides try to define the framework of the debate using the way they read the world. Realists view the cyberspace as an anarchic system, apparently with no governing body or police force, and the internet perfectly fits their security model. They declare the cyberspace as the new international battlefield where every state stands alone or with its allies, and no one can be fully trusted. Every actor should build up its cyber strength, knowing that every breakthrough by another state poses a vital threat to security (Musiani, 2014). But seeing that not only governments but also non-state actors and even individuals are capable of orchestrating an attack on cyberspace, they admit that “government alone cannot secure cyberspace,” and propose alternative governance in China’s Xi Jinping’s speech at the 2nd World Internet Conference;

“…to respect each country’s right to choose its own internet development path, its own internet management model, its own public policies on the Internet, and to participate on an equal basis in the governance of international cyberspace – avoiding cyber-hegemony and avoiding interference in the internal affairs of other countries.”

Jinping expresses the core demand of the revisionist camp to reduce the threats imposed by this anarchic environment, a Cyber Westphalia where the nations’ governments have a cyber-sovereignty. He can see that this space is not getting along well with the borders of states. He is asking for the Westphalian order in realist definition, and this is where the theoretical debate starts, defining this new space in old terms: “Territoriality, Autonomy, Control and Mutual Recognition” (Jayawardane et al., 2015). He requests territoriality to describe the edges of his jurisdiction over cyberspace without risking external conflict. This territory is supposed to be giving him the capability to alter the cyberspace experienced by its own citizens, and also the autonomy to impose its will in this territory with respect to its own citizens. We see states such as France and Australia creating rules of oversight for their own citizens and procedures with the power of law to be implemented on national telecommunications firms. This approach turns the nation¬al telecommunications regulators and firms to the skirmishers in the frontline of their borders in cyberspace(Cattaruzza, Danet, Taillat, & Laudrain, 2016). “Control” in cyberspace means the monopoly of a state on the use of “force.” Cyberspace, in its current form, profoundly challenges traditional notions of the monopoly of force as it requires a state to stop or punish harm to its society that comes through cyber mechanisms. Mutual recognition means that states recognize the autono¬my, territoriality, and monopoly of force of other states in cyberspace (Jayawardane & Larik, 2015).

Liberals attack these realist efforts for using 18th-century technology to deal with the 21st-century problems. They name these definitions useless as cyberspace is destroying the link between geographic location and the power of local governments to assert control over its citizens or the ability of a physical location to give notice of which set of rules apply. Likewise, the legitimacy of the efforts of a local sovereign to enforce the laws applicable to this “global phenomena” is questionable. Pushing hard to this end will result in the contradiction with the concept of unrestricted inter-connectivity, and the need for the involvement of multi-stakeholders will finally outweigh all other benefits expected from multilateral governance. Liberalists also argue that the struggle of each country to set up a separate cyberspace of its own, will result in the fragmentation of the internet and destroy the spirit of the internet.

Realists have a quick answer to these concerns: Transition to Cyber Westphalia is already happening, so we need to regulate it. China and several other states are trying to assert their technological sovereignty by designing a protected public internet with limited connection to the outer cyberspace (Zeng, 2017). Germany started to see its monopoly of control, autonomy, and territoriality on relying German-only technologies. Russia is defining a “.ru” internal cyberspace that is only open to Russian citizens and can be filtered, or functions through the permission or blockings of the state (Drezner, 2004). In general, the return of states and the new notion of cyber sovereignty is an inevitable trend for realists.

Dictators Dilemma

What stops nations, and why do they not declare their sovereignty over the internet? “Dictators Dilemma” (Slack & Slack, 2016) explains this with the difficulties of finding the right balance between economic development and political freedom, especially in authoritarian states. Power holders with a weak society face the core issue of taking the risk of jeopardizing economic development by isolating its network and cutting the country from outside influence. Sustaining economic growth is vital for any political power

In the speech of French President Nicholas Sarkozy at 2012 G8 meeting we meet another aspect of leaders’ relative incompetence in cyberspace while he was pointing to the executives of Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc. and saying:

“The universe you represent is not a parallel universe. Nobody should forget that governments are the only legitimate representatives of the will of the people in our democracies. To forget this is to risk democratic chaos and anarchy.”


On the surface, Sarkozy was complaining about the lack of democratic legitimacy in cyber space but indeed, this complaint is about the redistribution of power. From the legitimacy perspective, when we take democracy as a result of an electoral process (Poelert, 2017), we do not see an election system for the new governors of the cyberspace. Financially and technologically powerful states find ways to make their voices heard, but many states remain large¬ly outside the existing dialogue about international efforts to regulate cyber¬ space. And the representation of the new demographics is another problem when the 700 million internet users in China are taken into consideration. In the multi-stakeholder system, the private sector obviously benefits from cyberspace more than public thanks to their expertise regarding the internet, and it raises more questions on the legitimacy of the current system dominated by the (mostly US-based) private sector. Also, at the institutional level, revisionists expect the international organizations of internet governance to inevitably go through a legitimacy crisis, which will result in difficulties in maintaining the status quo. Liberals draw attention to the danger of such a system where the regimes and organizations governed only by governmental stakeholders will lose legitimacy and effectiveness, in the long run, thanks to the lack of participation of the major actors of the cyberspace: companies, organizations and powerful netizens (Katrandjiev, 1997).


Realists indicate to different security aspects of an ungoverned (governed by multi-stakeholder approach) internet. For authoritarian states, it is mostly about securing the regime, and it is a domestic insecurity issue related to state-society relations. Internet, in this current borderless form, is seen as a tool for an “invasion” of Western liberal ideas like the democracy that brings into question the legitimacy of the authoritarian governments (Kello, 2013). Social and political movements, cyberattacks, hacktivism, cybercrime, cyber spying, and misuse of personal data are challenging the governments continually on social, economic, and cultural domains (Goodman, 2018). The solution is united governance of cyberspace under an intergovernmental institution. Liberalists do not see the introduction of western values to different societies as a threat, but for other lawless cyber activities, they admit the difficulties of launching an international organization composed of states and non-state actors dedicated to the preservation of cybersecurity but still keeping their support for a system based on the current one since it gives the opportunity to the private sector to reveal its capabilities, offer methods to identify its cyber activity and share defensive technologies they developed. This is the key to lessen the uncertainty for liberals.

Hegemony and Power

Both sides see the US as reproducing its domination over the world in the digital age as a hegemon over cyberspace for its technological superiority, its role as the creator of the internet, and for being home to the central governing bodies and private giants of the internet. Following this kind of reading, realists expect a “balancing.” In cyberspace governance case, it does not come in the form of balancing against the powerful; we see EU siding by the US. Instead, it looks like more a balance of threat since states balance against the one they see as a threatening actor. In the status quo side, allies to the US who share fundamental values and have interest in aligning with the dominant power in cyberspace benefit from joint efforts. However, their alliance is not forever. After Snowden leaks, the strike down of the Safe Harbor Agreement which was allowing the US companies to transfer personal data from EU citizens highlighted a change of stance by European States and institutions concerning their interests in cyberspace. Through the hegemonic reading we can still say that the rest of the western world see band-wagoning, namely aligning with the dominant power in cyberspace, as the best way to benefit from it. For scholars from realist camp, both situations entail a risk of “balkanization” in the meaning of uncontrolled state fragmentation in an infinity of smaller territories (Cattaruzza, Danet, Taillat, & Cyr, 2016). This fragmentation is expected to threaten the security and integrity of the internet itself, not only against individual freedom. They see inclusive multilateral governance as a solution which could lead to the realization of an international treaty on cyberspace sovereignty (Poelert, 2017). For them, the only way to build trust on the international stage is to allow each state to formulate its own strategies to rule its own “cyber-territory” to enhance collective security over the internet.

A multilateral international institution, in the form of membership, can give small powers a voice and influence by binding powerful nations and corporations, and discouraging unilateralism. Small powers might apply “Lilliputian strategy” by banding together to collectively bind a larger power otherwise they could not stop. Giving small powers means to achieve control through collective action can also tame powerful states. Through multilateralism, one great power can also influence another great power who seeks control through bilateral ties. This kind of an effort will be made costly since it may require bargaining and cooperation with the other great power. Powerful states might enjoy the benefits of writing the rules and designing privileges for themselves such as veto vote and special status (Singh, 1999)

Global Commons

Seeing a hegemon in the cyberspace and taking internet as created and presented to the whole world by this hegemon, liberals’ internet, and cyberspace as a public good that has currently two characteristics: Non-excludable and non-rivalrous. US created the technology and the network logic of internet and administrates it without excluding any country from use and the way this network operates does not let the use of a country to reduce availability to other countries. This is obviously the definition of a public good and in this sense internet and cyberspace is a public good. To get more does not mean that others get less, and so far as US, a hegemon of this field, does not try to exclude any actors from joining this space, and it is devoted to keeping the internet open, free, and without division by sovereignty (C. M. Kurre, 2017). In this sense, liberals do not see any benefit in the existence of “national segments” for the good of humanity. But for others, US is no longer defending the idea of a global public domain and exploiting her hegemonic power on this space in many more cases than I have mentioned in this article. Revisionist camp treat the notions of common good and public domain with suspicion as ideas created by the global hegemons to strengthen their technological, political, and cultural superiority (Mihr, 2014). For revisionists, US acts on PRISM and iq.domain issues prove that when the US gathers countries’ online data or interferes with other countries’ cyber policies, it sees cyberspace as a public domain. When it wants to increase online supervision or enhance public-private cooperation domestically, then it either thinks that cyberspace is a sovereign sphere, and the US has the right for jurisdiction over privately-owned Internet infrastructures (Xinmin, 2015).


Liberalists draw attention to the “failed states” in a cybered world which could not build effec¬tive authority and capability in cyber¬ space or achieve only partial sovereignty over borders in cyberspace but lack enforcement tools. They might find ways to succeed in projecting offensive cyber power and begin spending resources to develop cyber weapons to have an asymmetrical advantage against their adversaries. This is the diplomatic nightmare of multilateral efforts because it gives a state the ability to attack another without a single trace of the attack’s origin. In this case, states fearing imminent, unknown attacks will lose their trust to the international institutions; they will draw back and start to build up their own strength. Since for many states, a conventional arms race with the big powers does not make any sense, a cyber weapons arms race becomes a more likely scenario.


Cyberspace is an environment that contains tremendously conflicting interests of states like cybersecurity, promotion of democracy and internet freedom, intelligence, cyber warfare, and a lot more. Governance of the internet is heavily related to all these interests, and even if the term “governance” sounds singular, everyone accepts that it should be done by a combination of plural actors. The question is about who these actors will be in the future. We can expect the current status will be obliged to adapt to the changing roles of the actors. Thanks to the improvements in the technology, sooner or later, states will have the ability to create their territories on cyberspace and declare their sovereignty in the newly designed cyber borders. Keeping away from the international regime/institution/norms/rules will only lessen the role of the US as the architect and chief arbiter of the existing liberal international system. Eventually, the US will face this crucial decision. Before the militarization of cyberspace weapons or de facto fragmentation of cyberspace will make it even harder, the US has to decide to lead multinational efforts to regulate cyberspace with other states and should find ways to preserve the freedom of internet in this new system.


Author’s Note: In this article, I named the revisionist ideas as realist and status quoist approach as liberalist. However, I need to say and admit that it is impossible to classify the ideas of both sides in such a clear-cut way. Moreover, there are western realists who do not share the multilateralist ideas of the revisionist camp. Still, through my readings, I noticed that the arguments of this camp coincide with realist thinking in general, and some western realists keep silent when it comes to cyber governance. I also observed that, if international relations is a pendulum swinging between realism and liberalism, it is at the liberalism side on the issue of governance of cyberspace.



* Bora Aslan is a PhD candidate at Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia.




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