Internet Monitor 2014 chapter on Data Revolutions: Bottom-Up Participation or Top-Down Control?

Internet Monitor[Summary: cross-posting article from from the 2014 Internet Monitor]

The 2014 Internet Monitor Report has just been launched. It’s packed with over 35 quick reads on the landscape of contemporary Internet & Society issues, from platforms and policy, to public discourse. This years edition also includes a whole section on ‘Data and privacy’. My article in the collection, written earlier this year, is below to archive. I encourage you to explore the whole collection – including some great inputs from Sara Watson and Malavika Jayaram exploring how development agencies are engaging with data, and making the case for building better maps of the data landscape to inform regulation and action.

Data Revolutions: Bottom-Up Participation or Top-Down Control?

In September 2015, through the United Nations, governments will agree upon a set of new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) replacing the expired Millennium Development Goals and setting new globally agreed targets on issues such as ending poverty, promoting healthy lives, and securing gender equality.1 Within debates over what the goals should be, discussions of online information and data have played an increasingly important role.

Firstly, there have been calls for a “Data Revolution” to establish better monitoring of progress towards the goals: both strengthening national statistical systems and exploring how “big data” digital traces from across the Internet could enable real-time monitoring.2 Secondly, the massive United Nations-run MyWorld survey, which has used online, mobile, and offline data collection to canvas over 4 million people across the globe on their priorities for future development goals, consistently found “An honest and accountable government” amongst people’s top five priorities for the SDGs.3 This has fueled advocacy calls for explicit open government goals requiring online disclosure of key public information such as budgets and spending in order to support greater public oversight and participation.

These two aspects of “data revolution” point to a tension in the evolving landscape of governments and data. In the last five years, open data movements have made rapid progress spreading the idea that government data (from data on schools and hospitals locations to budget datasets and environmental statistics) should be “open by default”: published online in machine-readable formats for scrutiny and re-use. However, in parallel, cash-strapped governments are exploring the greater use of private sector data as policy process inputs, experimenting with data from mobile networks, social media sites, and credit reference agencies amongst others (sometimes shared by those providers under the banner of “data philanthropy”). As both highly personal and commercially sensitive data, these datasets are unlikely to ever be shared en-masse in the public domain, although this proprietary data may increasingly drive important policy making and implementation.

In practice, the evidence so far suggests that the “open by default” idea is struggling to translate into widespread and sustainable access to the kinds of open data citizens and civil society need to hold powerful institutions to account. The multi-country Open Data Barometer study found that key accountability datasets such as company registers, budgets, spending, and land registries are often unavailable, even where countries have adopted open data policies.4 And qualitative work in Brazil has found substantial variation in how the legally mandated publication of spending data operates across different states, frustrating efforts to build up a clear picture of where public money flows.5 Furthermore, studies regularly emphasize the need not only to have data online, but also the need for data literacy and civil society capacity to absorb and work with the data that is made available, as well as calling for the creation of intermediary ecosystems that provide a bridge between “raw” data and its civic use.

Over the last year, open data efforts have also had to increasingly grapple with privacy questions.6 Concerns have been raised that even “non-personal” datasets released online for re-use could be combined with other public and private data and used to undermine privacy.7 In Europe, questions over what constitutes adequate anonymization for opening public data derived from personally identifying information have been hotly debated.8

The web has clearly evolved from a platform centered on documents to become a data-rich platform. Yet, it is public policy that will shape whether it is ultimately a platform that shares data openly about powerful institutions, enabling bottom up participation and accountability, or whether data traces left online become increasingly important, yet opaque, tools of governance and control. Both open data campaigners and privacy advocates have a key role in securing data revolutions that will ultimately bring about a better balance of power in our world.


  • 1: UN High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, “A New Global Partnership: Eradicate poverty and transform economies through sustainable development,” 2013, HLP_P2015_Report.pdf.
  • 2: Independent Expert Advisory Group on the Data Revolution,
  • 3: MyWorld Survey,
  • 4: World Wide Web Foundation, “Open Data Barometer,” 2013, http://www.opendatabarometer. org.
  • 5: N. Beghin and C. Zigoni, “Measuring open data’s impact of Brazilian national and sub-national budget transparency websites and its impacts on people’s rights,” 2014,
  • 6: Open Data Research Network, “Privacy Discussion Notes,” 2013, open-data-privacy-discussion-notes.
  • 7: Steve Song, “The Open Data Cart and Twin Horses of Accountability and Innovation,” June 19, 2013, https://
  • 8: See the work of the UK Anonymisation Network,

(Article under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported)

How can we make Internet Governance processes more legible?

[Summary: Links and reflections on the need for an improved information and engagement architecture for Internet Governance]

At a Berkman lunchtime talk today, Veni Markovski, ICANN vice-president for Russia, discussed high-level conferences on ICT and the Internet’ and what they mean for the Internet as we know it. The two diagrams below which Veni had on screen during his talk capture the increasing complexity of the Internet Governance process, with a mix of open and closed meetings of overlapping participants and stakeholders.


You can find Nate Mathias’s live-blog of the talk here, including reporting from the Q&A where Ethan Zuckerman put the question, with the importance of upcoming decisions: What should people who care about the Internet do? And, what should foundations be doing in this space too? Vini’s response was a call for interested parties to get involved in Internet Governance, following mailing lists and taking the advantage of remote participation in upcoming meetings.

Yet – with the complexity visible above, doing that is no small task. Keeping up with Internet Governance mailing lists could easily be a full-time job: and meeting information, participation opportunities and meeting records are scattered across the web. The ‘information architecture’ of Internet Governance is far from intelligible to outsiders trying to work out which issues matter to them, where they should get involved, and what the history of an issue is. It seems not a little ironic given the potential of the web to link up and make information more navigable, and to support global engagement and interaction, that Internet Governance processes and their online presences (and particularly those launched recently) feel very old fashioned. Whilst the early multi-stakeholderism of many Internet Governance fora was innovative, it feels very much like that innovation is on the wane as governments increasingly shape the agenda, and civil society capacity is spread ever more thinly.

So: what process and technical innovations should the Internet Governance field be engaging with to make it possible for more people to be involved in?

The recently launched Friends of the IGF project is trying to address some of the problems that exist when it comes to the Internet Governance Forum, bringing together and curating transcripts from past fora, and trying to tag content and speakers, proving new entry points into the governance debates. Tomorrow we’ll be having a skill-share workshop at the Berkman Center with Susan Chalmers who heads up the project, exploring how an open and user-centred design process might help focus that project on meeting key needs of IGF followers. But it feels like we also need a much broader conversation, and work on design, to join the dots between different Internet Governance silos for those approaching from outside, and to really work on institutionalisation of improved and open working practices.

Planning a Remote Hub for the Internet Governance Forum

[Summary: announcing an IGF Remote Hub at Southampton Uni]

I’ve taken part in the last three Internet Governance Forum meetings in Egypt, Lithuania and Kenya, supporting e-Participation for the last year years. But this year I’m planning to be on the other end of the webcast, participating from a Remote Hub organised at the University of Southampton. Here’s the details:

Screenshot of IGF Host Country Website

Between 5th – 9th November 2012, the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) will be held in Baku, Azerbaijan, and students from the Web Science DTC at the University of Southampton are arranging a ‘Remote Hub’, allowing anyone from the University and the local community to join in IGF discussions live.

The Internet Governance Forum, which was set up out of the UN convened  Tunis World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2005 is now in it’s 7th year, and provides an open forum where governments, companies and civil society come together to discuss key Internet issues – from cyber-security and critical internet infrastructure, to multilingualism on the web, diversity, access, culture and the impact of the web on climate change.

As well as being a forum about the Internet, a volunteer team have also worked hard to make sure IGF is a forum that takes place on the Internet. Each parellel stream from the conference is WebCast, and last year over 40 ‘Remote Hubs’ took place, with groups meeting up to following the WebCast, and feed back directly to the conference through live chat and video conferencing opportunities.

The Southampton Hub will be based on Building 32 on the Highfield Campus of Southampton University, joining afternoon sessions of the IGF on 6th, 7th and 8th November. We’ll be choosing sessions to follow, joining in local discussions around the issues raised, and feeding our views back to the event in Baku, and to other Remote Hubs around the world.

We might also build on our recent experiments in live blogging events, to capture some of the key conversations form this years IGF.

So – if you’ve an interest in any area of Internet policy, and want to join us in person in Southampton to explore remote participation in a global forum, sign-up to take part, and cast your vote on the sessions we should be taking part in.

Please register your interest by the end of October so that we can make sure we’ve got room and refreshments arranged.

(You can find out more about live Internet Governance Issues on the Diplo Internet Governance Forum at

Possible sessions include:
Tuesday 6th – 10.30am – 12noon

Tuesday 6th – 12.30pm – 2pm

Wednesday 7th – 10.30am – 12noon

Wednesday 7th – 12.30pm – 2pm

Thursday 8th – 10.30am – 12noon

Thursday 8th – 12.30pm – 2pm

We can only take part in one session in each time-slot, so vote on the session you think we should be part of here:

You can also find a write up over on Chris Phethean’s blog.

What does Internet Governance have to do with open data?

[Summary: What do Internet Governance and Open Data have to do with each other?]

As a proposal I worked on for a workshop at this years Internet Governance Forum on the Internet Governance issues of Open Government Data has been accepted, I’ve been starting to think through the different issues that the background paper for that session will need to cover. This week I took advantage of a chance to guest blog over on the Commonwealth IGF website to start setting them out. 

It started with high profile Open Government Data portals like in the US, and in the UK giving citizens access to hundreds of government datasets. Now, open data has become a key area of focus for many countries across the world, forming a core element of the Open Government Partnership agenda, and sparking a plethora ofInternational conferencesevents and online communities. Proponents of open data argue it has the potential to stimulate economic growth, promote transparency and accountability of governments, and to support improved delivery of public services. This year’s Internet Governance Forum in Baku will see a number of open data focussed workshops, following on from open data and PSI panels in previous years. But when it comes to Open Data and Internet Governance, what are the issues we might need to explore? This post is a first attempt to sketch out some of the possible areas of debate.

In 2009 David Eaves put forward ‘three laws of open government data‘ that describe what it takes for a dataset to be considered effectively open. They boil down to requirements that data should be accessible online, machine readable, and under licenses that permit re-use. Explore these three facets of open data offers one route into potential internet governance issues that need to be critically discussed if the potential benefits of open data are to be secured in equitable ways.

1) Open Data as data accessible online

Online accessibility does not equate to effective access, and we should be attentive to new data divides. We also need to address bandwidth for open data, the design of open data platforms, cross-border cloud hosting of open data, and to connect open data and internet freedom issues. Furthermore, the online accessibility of public data may create or compound privacy and security issues that need addressing.

Underlying the democratic arguments for open data is the idea that citizens should have access to any data that affects their lives, to be able to use and analyse it for themselves, to critique official interpretations, and to offer policy alternatives. Economic growth arguments for open data often note the importance of a reliable, timely supply of data on which innovative products and services can be built. But being able to use data for democratic engagement, to support economic activity, is not just a matter of having the data – it also requires the skills to use it. Michael Gurstein has highlighted the risk that open data might ‘empower the empowered’ creating a new ‘data divide’. Addressing grassroots skills to use data, ensuring countries have capacity to exploit their own national open data, and identifying the sorts of intermediary institutions and capacity building to ensure citizens can make effective use of open data is a key challenge.

There are also technical dimensions of the data divide. Many open data infrastructures have developed in environment of virtually unlimited bandwidth, and are based on the assumption that transferring large data files is not problematic: an assumption that cannot be made everywhere in the world. Digital interfaces for working with data often rely on full size computers, and large datasets can be difficult to work with on mobile platforms. As past IGF cloud computing discussions have highlighted, where data is hosted may also matter. Placing public data, albeit openly licensed so sidestepping some of the legal issues, into cloud hosting, could have impacts on the accessibility, and the costs of a access, to that data. How far this becomes an issue may depend on the scale of open data programmes, which as yet can only constitute a very small proportion of Internet traffic in any country. However, when data that matters to citizens is hosted in a range of different jurisdictions, Internet Freedom and filtering issues may have a bearing on who really has access to open data. As Walid Al-Saqaf’s power presentation at the Open Government Partnership highlighted, openness in public debate can be dramatically restricted when governments have arbitrary Internet filtering powers.

Last, but not least, in the data accessibility issues, whilst most advocates of open data explicitly state that they are concerned only with public data, and exclude personal datafrom the discussion, the boundaries between these two categories are often blurred (for example, court records are about individuals, but might also be a matter of public record), and with many independently published open datasets based on aggregated or anonymised personal data, plus with large-scale datasets harvested from social media and held by companies, ‘jigsaw identification’, in which machines can infer lots of potentially sensitive and personal facts about individuals becomes a concern. As Cole outlines, in the past we have dealt with some of these concerns by ad-hoc limitations and negotiated access to data. Unrestricted access to open data online removes these strategies, and highlights the importance of finding other solutions that protect keydimensions of individual privacy.

2) Open data as machine readable

Publishing datasets involves selecting formats and standards which impact on what the data can express and how it can be used. Often standard setting can have profound political consequences, yet it can be treated as a purely technical issue.

Standards are developing for everything from public transport timetables (GTFS), to data on aid projects (IATI). These standards specify the format data should be shared in, and what the data can express. If open data publishers want to take advantage of particular tools and services, they may be encouraged to chose particular data standards. In some areas, no standards exist, and competing open and non-open standards are developing. Sometimes, because of legacy systems, datasets are tied into non-open standards, creating a pressure to develop new open alternatives.

Some data formats offer more flexibility than others, but usually with connected increase in complexity. The common CSV format of flat data, accessing in spreadsheet software, does not make it easy to annotate or extend standardised data to cope with local contexts. eXtensible Markup Language makes extending data easier, and Linked Data offers the possibility of annotating data, but these formats often present barriers for users without specialist skills or training. As a whole web of new standards, code lists and identifiers are developed to represent growing quantities of open data, we need to askwho is involved in setting standards and how can we make sure that global standards for open data promote, rather than restrict, the freedom of local groups to explore and address the diverse issues that concern them.

3) Open data as licensed for re-use

Many uses case for open data rely on the ability to combine datasets, and this makesc ompatible licenses a vital issue. In developing license frameworks, we should engage with debates over who benefits from open data and how norms and licenses can support community claims to benefit from their data.

Open Source and Creative Commons licenses often include terms such as a requirement to ‘Share Alike’, or a Non-Commercial clause prohibiting profit making use of the content. These place restrictions on re-users of the content: for example, if you use Share Alike licensed content to in your work, you must share your work under the same license. However, open data advocates argue that terms like this quickly create challenges for combining different datasets, as differently licensed data may be incompatible, and many of the benefits of having access to the data will be lost when it can’t be mashed up and remixed using both commercial and non-commercial tools. The widely cited states that at most, licenses can require attribution of the source, but cannot place any other restrictions on data re-use. Developing a common framework for licensing has been a significant concern in many past governance discussions of open data.

These discussions of common licenses have connections to past Access to Knowledge (A2K) debates where the rights of communities to govern access to traditional knowledges, or to gain a return from use of traditional knowledge have taken place. An open licensing framework creates the possibility that, without a level playing field of access to resources to use data (i.e. data divides), some powerful actors might exploit open data to their advantage, and to the loss of those who have stewarded that data in the past. Identifying community norms, and other responses to addresses these issues is an area for discussion.

Further issues?

I’ve tried to set out some of the areas where debates on open data might connect with existing or emerging internet governance debates. In the workshop I’m planning for this years IGF I am hoping we will be able to dig into these issues in more depth to identify how far they are issues for the IGF, or for other fora, and to develop ideas on different constructive approaches to support equitable outcomes from open data. I’m sure the issues above don’t cover all those we might address, so do drop in a comment below to share your suggestions for other areas we need to discuss…

Further reading:

(Other suggested references welcome too…)

Addition: over on the CIGF post Andrew has already suggested an extra reference to Tom Slee’s thought provoking blog post on ‘Seeing like a geek’ that emphasises the importance of putting licensing issues very much on the table in governance debates.


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.

Challenging Myths about Young People and the Internet

[Summary: Workshop report from the Internet Governance Forum, Nairobi, 2011]

I facilitated a workshop at this year’s Internet Governance Forum on the topic ‘Challenging Myths about Young People and the Internet‘. The workshop report is available on the IGF Website, and also available to read below. I hope it can act as a useful resource in any policy work around young people and the Internet. Both the USA IGF, and Child Net’s Youth IGF Project held their own discussions and debates on the topic of ‘myths about young people and the Internet’ in the run up to the forum, and it seems to work well as a discussion format to dig deeper to understand young people’s online experiences.

I also shared some of the myths from the workshop in a recent keynote to the EU Safer Internet Forum, the slides from which you can also find below.

Workshop 92: Challenging Myths about Young People and the Internet

Claims about youth are central to many Internet Governance discussions. However, many of the claims made about youth and the Internet are based on myth and misperception rather than on reality.

Myths come in a variety of forms. Some are compelling, but mistaken claims: intuitively plausible, but not backed by evidence and research. Others are based on stereotypes or distorted media coverage given to issues. Other myths are propagated by those with vested interests or particular agendas, seeking to secure support for their cause by making exaggerated claims.

Workshop 92 provided a space for constructive dialogue about how we should understand claims made about young people in Internet Governance. Contributions from ten panellists and the floor addressed a wide range of  myths or misunderstandings about young people and technology: highlighting where we need to think more deeply before making Internet policy based upon generalisations about children, young people and young adults.

This report looks at the myths in turn, before reporting some general points from discussion at the end. The Youth Coalition on Internet Governance will continue to develop a resource based on these myths to offer as an input for future IGF sessions. A number of the myths draw on headings from a list of common myths put forward by danah boyd.

The Myths

Myth: Young people are either digital natives, or digitally naive (Sheba Mohammid)

Our descriptions of youth and technology are frequently polarised with youth described as opposite extremes: either as digital natives, with ubiquitous understanding of technology, or digitally naive, and in need of protection. This can lead to technology projects ignoring the need to do work on pedagogical systems and educating youth; or it can lead to responses that perceive only the need for control and protection of young people online.

There is limited dialogue between those who describe youth as ‘natives’ and those who focus on youth ‘naivete’. The tendency to pigeonhole young people into one category or the other prevents us from developing a deeper understanding of diverse youth experiences of networked media, and how individuals can have different experiences at different times and in different spaces.

Talking about ‘digital natives’ or ‘digital naivete’ may have intuitive and rhetorical appeal – but whenever speakers use these phrases, they gloss over the reality of young people’s online lives and can lead to unhelpful policy responses. The following myths explore in more detail the subtleties that we need to bring to our discussions.

Myth: The Internet is a dangerous, dangerous place (Alannah Travers)

“There are dangers online, as in the real world, but that doesn’t mean it’s inherently bad, or only dangerous and never good.” 

Starting from the assumption that the Internet is inherently a dangerous place can have negative impacts on policy. It’s important to develop skills and resilience to protect yourself, and, as with crossing the road, once you’ve learned to manage the dangers, you can be secure and safe.

Myth: The Internet is a free playground for youth (Max Kall)

“The myth is that youth regard the Internet as a free and anarchic playground where they can do whatever they want, and actions can unfold in whichever way they desire. Young people can spend hours and hours on social networks, gaming, and the myth is that young people think it’s all free. It’s all open and whatever you do, it does not yield any negative consequences. 

The opposite is actually the truth. For many young people the Internet is everything but free.”

Youth are frequently aware of the possibility of surveillance from law enforcement authorities, companies, employers or just from teachers or parents, and this can lead to ‘chilling effects’, limiting freedom of expression and democratic participation on the Internet.

The impact of these chilling effects vary from country to country, with a BBC survey finding that up to 49% of people in ‘democratic countries’ agreed with statements that the Internet is not a free space, rising to 70% is some countries. One workshop participant highlighted self-censorship by bloggers in the Congo. By contrast, in France and Kenya, the BBC survey found that 70% or more of people did regard the Internet as a free space. As with any claim about youth and the Internet we need to question the geographic and cultural specificity of the claim. Regardless, the levels of young people feeling inhibited in their free expression of political views online should be a cause for concern.

Myth: Youth don’t care about privacy (Kellye Coleman and Connor Dalby)

“…there is a myth that youth don’t care about privacy. I think youth do care but at the same time youth don’t fully understand what privacy means.”

Young people value education that empowers them to make positive privacy choices, where reasons are given for why certain privacy behaviors might be important: “If the why of privacy is shared I think we as young people can become more empowered and invested in taking actions to protect ourselves.”.

Education based on ‘fear tactics’ is less likely to be popular amongst young people: “[Scare tactics] are the wrong way to go about it. You are scaring youth to not share things they should be sharing, great things, or [scaring them to] stop using the Internet or social networks altogether. The best way to go about it is teaching about settings, not trying to scare them too much but teaching them good things that we can improve.”

Cutting through myths about youth and privacy is complicated by the ambiguity of the term. Threats to privacy can be many and varied, and different people may value particular aspects of privacy differently: some willing to trade their personal data for services from Internet companies, others seeing this as a threat to privacy. Young people’s views on privacy in particular situations, such as whether Amazon’s personalised recommendations are a positive or negative thing, are as diverse as those of the adult population.

Myth: The Internet is the ‘great equalizer’ (Matthew Jackman)

On the one hand, the Internet is a place where anyone could start a business, or choose to express themselves. On the other hand, “if you want ask someone where they would find videos they would clearly say YouTube…We find a monopoly website which control whole sectors.”

Just because the Internet presents great possibilities for access to information that doesn’t mean that everyone can access and make the most of it.

“…the Internet has potential to bring equality but with so many barriers with access, be it disability or affordability and censorship …[in practice it doesn’t]”.

However, we should be careful about assuming that disabled people, for example, are not only at all. One delegate reminded the workshop that young disabled people often rely on the Internet as a first port of call for information and resources, confounding the common assumption that they are not online. Projects and policies need to address barriers to the the realization of the equalizing potential of the Internet.

Myth: All young Nigerians as cybercriminals (‘Gbenga Sesan)

“I’m sure everyone here has probably, not even probably, has, received an e-mail from somebody who claims to be a Nigerian prince.”

The stereotyping of a whole nation can have profound consequences on the young people who live there. Young Nigerians are locked out of e-commerce opportunities as services like PayPal block the Nigerian market. Young Nigerians seeking to participate in online discussions can find their e-mails deleted by spam filters. And “this myth prevents the world from knowing what exactly is going on with young Nigerians on the Internet”, such as the 2011 mobile-phone based election monitoring application development by young Nigerians, or recent investment into Nigerian online businesses.

The association in popular conciousness of Nigeria with cybercrime is a modern stereotype: but a particularly harmful one to youth and one that needs to be challenged.

Myth: Social media is addictive (Dan Skipper)

Claims about youth ‘Internet addiction’ or ‘addiction’ to social media are common in policy debates, and at the Internet Governance Forum: often leading to polarised arguments. Although a small number of people may exhibit “compulsively driven behaviour with negative consequences” in relation to the social media, and many young people prefer not to be without access to social media for long periods, general claims about youth Internet addiction are based more in rhetoric and myth than in evidence; and a focus on ‘addiction’ can divert a focus on important issues such as whether people are enjoying a great enough diversity of online experiences.

“I think social media is not addictive, just a luxury people enjoy using so you could in a way argue anything is addictive if you are saying social media is addictive. If you play a sport and you love playing and you play it every chance you get, same with being on social media.  If you enjoy social media, you use it as much as you can. I don’t think you can say it is an addiction.”

Myth: Young People are all creating their own online content (Gitte Stald)

It is commonly claimed that the Internet allows young people to become ‘content creators’, yet The EU Kids Online Research has found that very few young people are actually creating their own content online. “What the majority do is very mundane, and not creative.”

This can be seen as a missed opportunity both because young people are not exploring creative skills, and because it is recognised that there is a lack of good quality content for young people online – and peer-created content could help address this.

Myth: The digital is separate from the real world (Naveed-ul-haq)

Discussions of ‘cyberspace’, or ‘the virtual world’ or even ‘spending time online’ often have an implicit assumption that the digital world is separate from the real world. But for many young people (and adults) it is more accurate the say that the digital world is simply an integral part of the real world for many people.

“The most important thing that we do in our real world is communicate. How do we communicate with others and with people around us and talk about digital world? There are five billion mobile users: so we cannot say that digital world is separate than real world.”

However, policy makers, parents and teachers often frame discussions with an artificial divide between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ which doesn’t reflect the reality of young people’s lives, increasingly including the reality in developing world contexts too, where mobile phones mean everyone is carrying a connection to the digital world around with them.

Taking forward discussions

Delegate noted that simply presenting the myths challenged in the workshop would be a useful input to future IGF debates: allowing workshops planned in future to avoid framing debates around myths, and to ask better questions. Particular themes included

The importance of evidence

The session highlighted that two forms of evidence are vitally important. Firstly, high quality statistical evidence (particularly from studies using shared methods to promote International comparison) helping us to understand the prevalence of a wide range of online issues – from safety issues, to freedom of expression issues – and helping us to see the local variations in issues of importance at any particular time. We need evidence to help both highlight difference between contexts as well as commonality. Secondly, we need evidence and input from a diverse range of stakeholders, including diverse groups of children, young people and young adults – able to offer insights into the varied online experiences and opinions of youth.

The diversity of youth experience

The workshop discussions demonstrated that challenging myths and generalisations requires us to engage with a diversity of views and approaches to address key Internet issues. We were reminded that “we’ll not have one answer that fits all… what might work in developed countries might not work in developing countries”, and a debate between young panelists and delegates highlighted the range of different views held on whether censorship, web blocking and filtering was every appropriate.

A shared responsibility

One delegate issued a challenge to young people to think about how they can work to dispel myths about youth and the Internet, and another mentioned the possibility of using social media to challenge myths. The importance of challenging myths in local and regional debates was also raised.

Next steps

The Youth Coalition on Internet Governance ( will continue to develop resources based on the workshop transcript and report.

Deeper and wider: dialogue at the Internet Governance Forum

[Summary: Reflections from the 2011 Internet Governance Forum]

I was asked by Nominet to put together some reflections on this years IGF for their blog ahead of the Parliament and the Internet Conference last week. As I’ve not posted about IGF since I got back, it’s also reposted here…

The challenge faced by the Internet Governance Forum is a big one: to convene open multi-stakeholder dialogue on extremely diverse Internet issues in order to help shape global Internet policy and practice. Sometimes it can feel like an event of fragmented workshops, repeating year-on-year without making progress: but within the packed agenda are discussions and insights and ideas that really can move the dialogue forward.

Deeper dialogue on youth

This year I had my first experience convening an IGF workshop, benefiting from the open agenda setting process to see my suggestion of a workshop on ‘Challenging Myths about Young People and the Internet’ (#92) make it onto the programme. The workshop, involving young people, young adults and adults from across the world dug into common claims about young people and the Internet, such as ‘young people don’t care about privacy’, or ‘young people consider the Internet to be a free, anarchic spaces where they can do what they want’, and ‘young people are addicted to the Internet’. Rather than reject these myths out of hand, the panellists and participants in the workshop sought to show how both the myths, and their opposites, hide the subtle realities of young people’s lives in a digital world: and how the continued use of simplistic myths harms policy making. Instead of making bald claims about young people’s lack of belief in privacy, panellists argued we should look at how young people act in practice, and should offer education that supports young people to improve their privacy protection, rather than running ‘messaging campaigns’ that assume young people need to be scared into acting on privacy. And instead of over-using phrases like ‘Internet addiction’, we should understand the Internet as a space where young people are engaged in many different activities (to paraphrase one participant: ‘The Internet gives you access to just about anything, so you’re going to use it a lot!’), and where any critique needs to be more targeted and nuanced. The ‘chilling effects’ of online monitoring on young people’s online freedoms; the prejudice young nigerians face because of perceptions about nigerian cybercrime; and the need to avoid basing our understanding of young people on claims about ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital naiveté’ were also addressed.

Although many of the myths addressed in this workshop will, I’m sure, turn up as claims in other transcripts from this years IGF (mostly because of misunderstandings, but also because simplistic emotive claims about ‘youth’ are used by some to further their own interests and agendas), members of the Youth Coalition on Internet Governance will be collaboratively writing up the outcomes of the Challenging Myths workshop as a resource for future IGF discussions with the hope of helping to shape a deeper dialogue about youth and the Internet.

Widening access to the IGF

The dialogue in Workshop 92 also reached wider than I’d anticipated: with e-Participation allowing remote Panellists to join the workshop from Pakistan, and a remote-hub joining the discussion from Syracuse University in the USA. If the 2010 IGF was when remote participation came of age with over 30 remote hubs, 2011 was the year that e-Participation was recognises as a fundamental part of the way IGF does business. A workshop on e-Participation principles identified the need to build on existing platforms like the volunteer-developed Remote Participation through webcasts and WebEx, and on the social media aggregation on the platform I’ve been experimenting with over the past few years with the support of Diplo, to work towards year-round e-Participation in the IGF that continues to improve the inclusiveness and accessibility of forum discussions to all. The potential of ‘data mining’ the rich transcript and report archives that have built up over the years of the IGF, to help visualise the changing discourse, was also raised in workshops and the closing plenary: highlighting a continued drive towards institutional innovation to support better dialogue on key Internet policy issues.

Emerging issues: open data

A number of worshops in Nairobi developed an IGF focus on the growing areas of ‘open data’. I participated in one panel on ‘Privacy and Security in a Linked/Open/Realtime data world’ that took a wide-ranging look at emerging issues around open data, from open government data like the International Aid Transparency Initiative data I spoke on, to the data from citizens sourced by Ushahidi explored by Eric Hershman, and data aggregated from social media and other sources addressed by Robet Kirkpatric talking about UN Global Pulse. With the need to critically explore open data initiatives, their technical and policy frameworks, and their social impacts, becoming more pressing, I’m sure an IGF thread on open data will return in 2012.

So: time to start looking forward to IGF2012? Well, yes and no. As Ginger Paque reminded us a in a number of sessions, IGF doesn’t just talk place once a year. With online networks like the Diplo Internet Goverance Community, and regional IGFs taking place across the world, the IGF process is going on year round – and the wider, deeper dialogue is needed year round too.



Youth Social Networking – myths and realities…

[Summary: Extract from an article exploring how online social networks have become part of the landscape of many young people’s lives]

I was recently asked to write an article for the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI)’s Freedom From Fear magazine on young people’s engagement with social network sites. You can find the full article over here, which outlines some of the history and wider context of social networks, but, following a kind tweet from Noel Hatch, I thought it might be worth reproducing on particular section below: a section inspired by my experience at the 2010 Internet Governance Forum when I heard strong versions of each of the statements in bold below used as core premises in arguments about aspects of Internet policy, rarely countered by more balanced assessments of whether these statements really held up as valid generalisations.

Opportunities and risks: Myths and realities

(Taken from F3 Magazine, Connected Generation: Young People and Social Networks)

The challenge in thinking about the impacts of social networks is to cut through reactions based on unfamiliarity or fear, to identify the risks and opportunities they create and, equally as important, the changes that new technologies make to the background conditions of what constitutes a viable policy response to any concerns that they do give rise to.

So what of the different concerns. Are these myths or reality?

– Young people are wasting time on social networks. Many young people can certainly end up spending a lot of time on social networks, though often this is multi-tasking time, doing other things as well as being online or linked to a network by phone. Some young people do identify that they want to spend less time in front of Facebook, or on a particular network. Howard Rheingold has written of the importance of helping young people develop ‘attention literacy’ to know when to tune out from the flow of conversation in online networks and to focus on other tasks. The Digital Youth report noted that time spent with digital media can be effective informal learning time, and many young people will explain that they were using SNS to get help from friends with projects or homework or even using networks to help them find employment.

– Young people don’t believe in privacy and are over-sharing. The 10 billion photos and thousands of status updates every minute on sites like Facebook show that SNS users share a lot of content about themselves online. Some have argued that this leads to the end of privacy. Whilst most social network sites offer some privacy features, users may leave their content open to anyone to view, and it can appear as if they do not care about privacy at all. danah boyd describes how much of this arises from individuals having an ‘imagined audience’ who they think are reading/engaging with their content – when the real audience may be quite different. However, danah also describes how many young people adopt sophisticated strategies to manage their privacy. There are both risks and benefits to new forms of SNS-enabled online transparency: risks of identity theft or of state surveillance of individuals are, for many, set against benefits of sharing in online communities, or being visible in ways that can bring better job prospects or other opportunities. Privacy isn’t dead; but it is constantly evolving.

– Social networks expose young people to dangerous ideas or groups. Undoubtedly the ability for anyone to publish content through social media spaces means there is a lot of negative and potentially harmful content available – and some young people do come across and engage with this content online. Gangs may use social networks to organise, and the way in which most networks only moderate or check content when it is reported to them as problematic means that a lot of harmful content can exist openly relatively undetected by authorities. But just because content is on YouTube or posted somewhere on Facebook, does not mean it is right in front of everyone – most young people never voyage far on a social network from the spaces where their friends are – but some undoubtedly may end up in more harmful ‘dark alleyways’ of the networks.

– Young people are at risk from sexual predators and abusive adults through SNS. There have been high-profile stories in a number of countries about cases of sexual abuse of young people facilitated by contact on social network sites. In sidelining adult gatekeepers, social networks can facilitate contact between young people and abusive adults – although the absolute number of cases of Internet-mediated harm is small in comparison to the number of young people abused by adults known to them from their family or local community. Research from the Crimes Against Children Research Centre in the United States(11) suggests that those vulnerable to online abuse are often the young people with existing vulnerabilities offline too.

One simple way of understanding SNS is as ‘amplifiers’. They can amplify the opportunities available to young people with existing positive connections and opportunities; but they can also amplify the vulnerabilities of the vulnerable. Offering vulnerable and disadvantaged young people support to develop the skills to get the most out of online social networking may turn out to be an important role for those who work with them.

Returning to the earlier metaphor of SNS as new public squares (or, to extend the metaphor, whole towns with public and private spaces), they do present some particular policy challenges. Most social networks services are privately owned by companies with commercial goals for the networks – they are ‘privatized public space’. They are also global spaces, making it difficult for national norms of regulations to be applied to them. That is why innovations in governance remain a pressing issue, and a topic that has been discussed at The Internet Governance Forum over recent years, including by the Youth Coalition on Internet Governance.

What do you think about these suggested myths and realities? Do they match with your experience or insights? What other common perceptions about social networks need to be explored in more depth?