Like many watershed moments, the establishment of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in 2006 went unnoticed by most Internet users. But by providing an integrated forum for considered deliberation on Internet public policy issues, the IGF has the potential to begin to legitimately address some of the Internet’s biggest challenges—such as spam, cybercrime, and freedom of expression online that have proved intractable for its current governance regime (an odd patchwork of United States government fiat, decentralised private action and ad hoc national and international regulation).

This thesis explores the potential for the IGF to act as a democratically legitimate and effective body within which for all concerned stakeholders—including those largely excluded from the Internet governance regime until now—to collaborate on the development of public policy concerning the Internet, following a model that draws from the decentralised governance exercised by organisations involved in the development of the Internet’s technical standards, but which also recognises the need to interoperate with other sources and subjects of international and transnational (non-state) law.

Chapter 1 introduces the Internet, the freewheeling community of computing enthusiasts who developed it, and the imprint that their ethos has left on its technical architecture and culture. Five different mechanisms for governing the Internet are then described: rules, norms, markets, architecture and the hybrid mechanism of governance by network, and some thoughts are offered as to how well the Internet’s culture accommodates the use of each of these mechanisms. In particular it is found that the hierarchical mechanism of rules suffers from problems both of legitimacy and effectiveness when applied to the transnational governance of the Internet, and that governance by network may be a more balanced mechanism for use in this context.

Chapter 2 describes the Internet governance regime that preceded the formation of the IGF, in each of three spheres: technical coordination (management of the Internet’s technical architecture and resources), standards development, and public policy governance (development of Internet-related public policy). This involves consideration of the structure and activities of the existing institutions active in each sphere, such as ICANN in technical coordination, the IETF in standards development, and various intergovernmental organisations in public policy governance. It is concluded that the decentralised mechanisms of governance upon which the Internet’s technical coordination and standards development have relied are no more legitimate or effective in their own right than the use of hierarchical rules, reinforcing the nomination of network governance as the most appropriate foundation for governing the Internet.

Chapter 3 examines how the Internet governance regime fits with the present international system, and outlines how that system has attempted to grapple with the intractable task of legitimately developing transnational public policy principles. A survey is made of three existing forms of international law; hard (that is, binding), soft (including various forms of non-binding or customary law) and private (including cross-border “transnational law”). The increasing role of non-state actors in international arena, and problems they are likely to face, are noted. It is concluded that there is greater scope than previously recognised for the development of the private ordering of stakeholders in Internet governance into international or transnational law in its own right.

Chapter 4 starts from the position already developed that the legitimacy of any organisation involved in public policy governance of the Internet requires the involvement of a network of affected stakeholders. How this general principle translates into a specific model for collaborative decision-making is then addressed. Insights are drawn both from the anarchistic and consensual organisational models familiar to “native” Internet governance institutions such as the IETF, and the hierarchical and democratic models more common in governmental and intergovernmental circles. An overarching principle to be observed is found in the need for any governance institution to operate with the consent of those it governs. The best way to ensure this in a transnational, multi-stakeholder context is found to be by designing the institution to bring in all affected viewpoints and subject them to reasoned deliberation.

Chapter 5 surveys the reforms to Internet governance that have actually been made in recent years with the establishment of the Internet Governance Forum by the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). Political forces are found to have limited the IGF in fulfilling its mandate from WSIS, and this is found to have been reflected in its present structure and processes. Various alternative proposals predating the discussions that led to the IGF, and at a greater or lesser remove from the existing international system, are also examined, but a reformed IGF is found to offer the best prospect of forming a legitimate and effective multi-stakeholder network for developing public policy for the Internet governance regime.

Chapter 6 therefore draws together the conclusions of the preceding chapters and examines exactly what reforms are necessary to accomplish this. The chapter begins by comparing the IGF against various other governance institutions that had been discussed in previous chapters, and goes on to develop recommendations as to how the role, structure and processes of the IGF should be reformed in order to improve its legitimacy and effectiveness as a multi-stakeholder governance network. Amongst the recommendations made is the establishment of a new multi-stakeholder bureau of the IGF, which would make formal decisions only by the consensus of all stakeholder groups. It in turn would draw from the ultimate authority of a reformed plenary body which would be empowered to deliberate democratically, both in person and online.