NoC study on Internet Governance


The research effort on Internet governance documented here is a globally coordinated, independent academic research pilot project by the Network of Interdisciplinary Internet & Society Research Centers (NoC). Facilitated by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, this study examines existing multistakeholder governance groups with the goal of informing the future evolution of the Internet governance ecosystem. Building upon the NETmundial Principles and Roadmap, it contributes to current policy debates at the international level, including the Internet Governance Forum, the NETmundial Initiative, and other organizations and efforts.

Internet governance is an increasingly complex concept that operates at multiple levels and in different dimensions, making it necessary to have a better understanding of both how multistakeholder governance groups operate and how they best achieve their goals. With this need in mind, at a point where the future of Internet governance is being re-envisioned, colleagues from several NoC institutions around the world have written twelve case studies examining a geographically and topically diverse set of local, national, and international governance models, components, and mechanisms from within and outside of the sphere of Internet governance. Key findings from these cases are summarized in a synthesis paper, which aims to deepen our understanding of the formation, operation, and critical success factors of governance groups and even challenge conventional thinking.

The research effort is grounded in a diversity of global perspectives and collaborative research techniques. Adhering to objective and independent academic standards, it aspires to be useful, actionable, and timely for policymakers and stakeholders. More broadly, the Network of Centers seeks to contribute to a more generalized vision and longer-term strategy for academia regarding its roles in research, facilitation and convening, and education in and communication about the Internet age.

Research process and methodology

Responding to the dynamics of the current debate about the future of Internet governance, the objectives of this pilot project have evolved over time as we have gained a better understanding about the interaction between the formation and operation of governance groups, and the contextual environments in which such groups operate.

Initially drawing upon the Panel on Global Internet Cooperation and Governance and Governance Mechanisms (Panel Report), the research began with the guiding question of whether a set of best practices that built off of the Panel Report could be distilled from a series of select real-world case studies examining various governance groups. In that mode we sought case studies that would help us better understand three components of the Panel Report: (1) how governance groups best match challenges with the organizations, experts, networks, and governing bodies/entities most able to help develop legitimate, effective, and efficient solutions; (2) how to structure the flow of information and knowledge necessary for successful governance; and (3) how different governance groups approach coordination between regional and global (or national and regional) governance networks in order to avoid conflicting directives.

Starting from the results of case studies, the synthesis paper concludes that there is no single best-fit model for multistakeholder governance groups that can be applied in all instances. Rather, it reveals a range of approaches, mechanisms, and tools available for both the formation and operation of such groups. The analysis demonstrates that whether governance groups meet their objectives depends to a large degree on the careful selection, deployment, and management of suitable instruments from this “toolbox.” As governance groups pass through different phases of operation, conveners and facilitators must remain alert to changes in circumstances that necessitate adjustments to the approaches, mechanisms, and tools that they deploy in order to address evolving challenges from inside and from outside. The case study series provides insights into how those instruments can be deployed and adjusted over time within such groups, and highlights how important contextual factors they interact with may be successfully managed within given resource restraints.

The case studies come from the global academic institutions that constitute the Network of Centers. After a series of planning meetings and learning calls among the participating Centers, the research team met in May 2014 to collaboratively identify and select case studies based on a set of criteria emerging from the current debates about the future of Internet governance, as described above. The case studies represent a wide variety of initiatives, including public and private sector efforts, operating at national and international levels in regions all over the world, addressing issues with varying levels of technical complexity. The selected case studies also cover a wide range of activities, including drafting legislation, developing policy in the absence of formal regulatory authority, defining and exploring the scope of a problem, and building connections among stakeholders. While some of the case studies come from areas related to Internet governance, others come from outside the Internet governance ecosystem. Although they differ in many respects, the governance groups documented in the case studies share a common commitment to using multistakeholder processes to solve complex issues.

Each of the case study authors conducted desk research and interviews in order to develop the case studies. In several cases, the case studies reflect direct input from participants and leaders in the group’s operation. Once drafted, the case studies underwent several rounds of peer review and served as key inputs for a meeting of the Network of Centers on October 1-2, 2014. At the meeting, the case studies were discussed and key findings were identified and synthesized. That discussion formed the basis of the synthesis paper, which underwent peer-review.


This project takes a networked approach to academic research. By activating a global network of interdisciplinary research centers, we were able to conduct in parallel research on twelve different case studies, and then collaboratively consider lessons from those case studies. Although the work was conducted in a highly compressed timeframe, we endeavored to demonstrate that such an interdisciplinary and global approach can offer nuanced, helpful, and timely insights to the stakeholders involved in Internet governance debates or concerned with the implementation of governance groups more broadly.

Of course, such an approach is not without methodological limits. First, our conclusions are bounded by the samples chosen. We chose only cases that were multistakeholder in whole or in part, and did not study groups with entirely different structures. Nor did we seek examples of failed governance groups; although not all of the groups analyzed in our research achieved all of their intended goals, they all were viable in their operations and sustainable throughout their existence. Accordingly, this research does not endeavor to identify factors that may trigger failure and instead focuses on factors that seem to enable success. Second, as with most case study-centered research, this project does not assert to be a statistically representative sample of models, regions, or experiences. Despite these limitations, we believe this synthesis and the accompanying case studies provide timely insights to the current debate over Internet governance, while also laying a foundation for future research that will be able to more fully explore the concepts, considerations, and questions raised in this work.

Case Studies and Synthesis Documents

The synthesis and case studies are also available for download on SSRN.