A commonwealth of skills and capabilities

Cross-posted from a guest blog post on the Commonwealth Internet Governance Forum Website.

[Summary: Creating cultures of online collaboration, and skills for online safety, is tougher than building platforms or creating technical controls, but without a participation-centred approach we will lose out on the benefits of the net]

“We want to encourage more knowledge sharing, learning and collaboration within our network. Let’s create an online platform.”

“These online spaces contain dangerous content. We need to restrict access to them.”

These sorts of thoughts are incredibly common when it comes to engagement with the Net, whether as a space of opportunity, or as a space of risk and danger. I’m sure you will have encountered them. For example, from a committee focussing on the provision of new online tools and services, forums and websites to improve communication within a group. Or perhaps from institutions and governments arguing for more powers or tools to control Internet access, whether filtering Internet access in schools, or domain seizures requests to take websites offline at the DNS level in the interests of protecting students or citizens. However, these lines of reasoning are deeply problematic if we believe in the Internet as a democratic tool, and a space of active citizenship. In this post I’ll try and explain why, and to argue that our energy should go primarily into sharing skills and capabilities rather than solely into building platforms or creating controls.

The protection paradox

In the UK there has recently been a vigorous debate over whether the police should be able to ask the national domain name registrar Nominet, to block certain .uk DNS entries (domain names) if a website is found to contain malware or to be selling counterfeit goods. Much of the debate has been over whether the police should have a court order before making their requests, or whether the DNS can be altered on law-enforcement request without judicial authorisation. Creating new powers to allow authorities to act against cybercrime by adding blocks within the network can certainly seems like an appealing option when confronted with a multitude of websites with malicious intent, but these approaches to protection can create a number of unintended results.

Blocks within the network can create a false sense of security: users feel that someone else is taking care of security for them, and so have even less motivation to act on security for themselves, creating increased risks when malicious sites inevitably slip through the cracks. Strategies of control  and filtering in schools and educational institutions also remove the incentives for educators to support young people to develop the digital skills they need to navigate online risks safely. But the potential for control-based protection policies to limit individuals ability to protect themselves is just one of the paradoxes. Protection measures placed in the network itself can centralise power over Internet content, creating threats to the open nature of the Internet, and putting in place systems and powers which could be used to limit democratic freedoms.

If we put restriction and control strategies of protection aside, there are still options open to us – and options that better respect democratic traditions. On the one hand, we can ensure that laws and effective judicial processes are in place to address abuses of the openness of the Internet; and, on the other, we can focus on individuals skills and capabilities to manage their own online safety. Often these skills are very practical. As young people at last years Internet Governance Forum explained in a session on challenging myths about young people and the Internet explained (LINK), young people do care about privacy: they don’t need to be given scare stories about privacy dangers,  but they do want help to use complicated social network privacy settings, and opportunities to talk with friends and colleagues about norms of sharing personal information online.

Of course, the work involved in spreading practical digital skills can look like at order of magnitude greater than the work involved in implementing network-level controls. But that doesn’t mean it’s not the right approach. It might be argued that, for some countries, spreading the digital literacy needed for people to participate in their own protection from cybercrime is simply too complicated right now – and it can wait until later, whilst rolling out Internet access can’t wait. In ‘Development as FreedomAmartya Sen counters a similar argument about democratic freedoms and economic development, where some theorists suggest democratic rights are a luxury that can only be afforded once economic development is well progressed. Sen counters that democratic rights and freedoms are a constitute part of development, not some add-on. In the same vein we might argue that being able to be an autonomous user of an Internet endpoint, with as much control as possible over any controls that might be placed on your Internet access is constitutive both of having effective Internet access, and of being able to use the Internet as a tool to promote freedom and development. The potential challenges of prioritising skills-based and user-empowerment approach to cyber-security should not be something we shy away from.

The problem with a platform focus

When we look at a successful example of online collaboration the most obvious visible element of it is often the platform being used: whether it’s a Facebook group, or a custom-built intranet. Projects to support online learning, knowledge sharing or dialogue can quickly get bogged down in developing feature-lists for the platform they think they need – articulating grand architectural visions of a platform which will bring disparate conversations together, and which will resolve information-sharing bottlenecks in an organisation or network. But when you look closer at any successful online collaboration, you will see that it’s not the platform, but the people, that make it work.

People need opportunities, capabilities and supportive institutional cultures to make the most of the Internet for collaboration. The capabilities needed range from technical skills (and, on corporate networks, the permission) to install and use programs like Skype, to Internet literacies for creating hyper-links and sharing documents, and the social and media literacy to participate in horizontal conversations across different media. But even skills and capabilities of the participants are not enough to make online collaboration work: there also needs to be a culture of sharing, recognising that the Internet changes the very logic of organisational structures, and means individuals need to be trusted and empowered to collaborate and communicate across organisational and national boundaries in pursuit of common goals.

Online collaboration also needs facilitation: from animateurs who can build community and keep conversations flowing, to technology stewards who can help individuals and groups to find the right ad-hoc tools for the sorts of sharing they are engaged in at that particular time. Online facilitators also need to work to ensure dialogues are inclusive – and to build bridges between online and offline dialogue. In my experience facilitating an online community of youth workers in the UK, or supporting social reporting at the Internet Governance Forum, the biggest barriers to online collaboration have been people’s lack of confidence in expressing themselves online, or easily-address technical skill shortages for uploading and embedding video, or following a conversation on Twitter.

Building the capacity of people and institutions, and changing cultures, so that online collaboration can work is far trickier than building a platform. But, it’s the only way to support truly inclusive dialogue and knowledge-sharing. Plus, when we focus on skills and capabilities, we don’t limit the sorts of purposes they can be put to. A platform has a specific focus and a limited scope: sharing skills lays the foundation for people to participate in a far wider range of online opportunities in the future.

Culture, capability and capacity building in the Commonwealth

So what has this all got to do with the Commonwealth? And with Internet governance? Hopefully the connections are clear. Sharing knowledge across boundaries is at the heart of a Commonwealth vision, and cybercrime is one area where the Commonwealth has agreed to focus collaboration (LINK). Projects like the Commonwealth Youth Exchange Council’s Digital Guyana project, and numerous other technical skills exchanges provide strong examples of how the Commonwealth can build digital skills and capabilities – but as yet, we’ve only scratched the surface of social media, online collaboration and digital skill-sharing in the Commonwealth. It would be great to think that we can switch from the statements this post opened with, to finding that statements like those below are more familiar:

“We want to encourage more knowledge sharing, learning and collaboration within our network. Let’s invest in sharing the skills to engage, building the culture of openness, and involving the technology stewardship and facilitation we need to do it.”

“These online spaces contain dangerous content. Let’s use shared knowledge across the Commonwealth to build the capacity of communities and individuals to actively participate in their own protection, and in having a safer experience of the Internet.”

Going beyond simply sharing legal codes and practices, or building platforms, to sharing skills and co-creating programmes to build individual and community capability is key for us to meet the collaboration and IG challenges of the future.



Footnote: 3Ps, with participation as the foundation

In thinking about how to respond to range of Internet Governance issues, I’m increasingly turning to a model drawn from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which turns out to have far wider applicability than just to youth issues. There is a customary division of the UNCRC rights into three categories: protection rights, provision rights, and participation rights. Rather than being in tension, these can be seen as mutually re-enforcing, and represented with a triangle of rights. Remove any side of the triangle, and the whole structure collapses.

How can this be used? Think of this triangle as a guide to what any effective policy and practice response to use of the Internet needs to involve. When your concern is protection (e.g. in addressing cybercrime), the solutions don’t only involve ‘protective’ measures, but need components involving the provision of education, support or remedial action in cases of harm, and components that promote the participation in individuals, both to develop skills to navigate online risks, and to be active stakeholders in their own protection. When your concern is promoting online participation and collaboration then as well as developing participative cultures and skills, you need to look to the provision of spaces and tools for dialogue, and making sure those spaces do not create unnecessary risks for participants. A balanced response to the Net can identify how it addresses each of protection, provision and participation.

However, we can go one step further by positing Participation as the foundation of this triangle (in the UNCRC Participation rights are arguably a key foundation for the others). Any policy or intervention which undermines people’s capacity to freely participate online undermines the validity of this intervention as a whole.

You can find more on the application of this model to young people’s online lives in this paper, or share your reflections on the model on this blog post.

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