Flickr / Jonathan McIntosh

Keeping a watchful eye on the digital immigrant

For definition of the terms ‘digital native’ and ‘digital immigrant’ see Prensky, M. 2001 ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants’ from ‘On the Horizon’ MCB University Press, Vol. 9 No. 5.

In the wake of the recent riots in the UK, British Prime Minister David Cameron floated the idea of introducing legislative powers to restrict the manner in which social media services such as Facebook and Twitter can be used to organise protests. In suggesting this, Cameron set himself up to accusations of being a digital tyrant and a foe of democracy. Fortunately (and perhaps surprisingly in politics) the sensible voice which said such a measure was not feasible prevailed. No doubt he was also warned of being made to look like a hypocrite after supporting the Arab Spring, events which were, to a significant degree, enabled by the democratic applications of social media. Perhaps as equally disturbing as the suggestion to restrict the uses of social media by the Prime Minister was his fundamental misunderstanding of the extent to which such a measure would harm free speech. This misunderstanding raises serious concerns about politicians who are not technical experts and who come from the class of the digital immigrant – that is, someone who has not grown up with the tools of the digital age - being solely responsible for the regulation of a utility, the Internet, that will be the communicative tool of generations to come.

Cameron set himself up to accusations of being a digital tyrant and a foe of democracy.

Since its inception, the Internet has been considered an exceptional tool of communication because of its extraordinary capacity to promote freedom of expression and association. To appreciate the exceptional democratic nature of a technology Columbia University Law School Prof. Tim Wu labelled a ‘Republic of Users’ comparative to other communication technologies, it is necessary to consider how these technologies developed. Whereas the communication networks that preceded the Internet (the cable, telephone, radio and television) were predicated on control of the customer, the Internet has always had a decentralised structure. In his essay, “Is Internet Exceptionalism Dead?” Prof. Tim Wu explains

“To understand what makes the Internet different, the origins of the Internet bear careful examination. First, the network’s predecessors (the telephone, cable etc.) were all commercial enterprises first and foremost, invented and deployed (in the U.S.) by private firms. The Internet, in contrast, was founded as a research network, explicitly non-commercial and public from the first decade of its existence…Perhaps, thanks to its origins, the Internet was founded with an ideology far more explicit than most –a kind of pragmatic libertarianism whose influence remains.”

This decentralised structure is directly responsible for the participatory nature of the Internet and its contribution to democratic discussion. The many-to-many geometry of the Internet, and social media in particular, is contributing to the daily growth of individual and collective political power. That the Internet differs from other communications technologies in this respect is implicit in the ability of anyone to establish a website, publish information and report on events to a large audience. Such capacities have only ever been true to a very limited extent on other networks. To put it in economic terms, the Internet has lowered fiscal barriers to entry for publishers and activists alike. It is for this reason that the Internet has been identified by people such as U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton as the 21st Century equivalent of the public square, akin to the physical public squares where democratic ideals have historically been propounded.

That any government, let alone a Western government, would contemplate a curtailment of the use of these technologies is disturbing.

That any government, let alone a Western government, would contemplate a curtailment of the use of these technologies is disturbing. Instead of looking to curb social activity on the Internet, governments should instead be looking to shore up its democratic potential by regulating the private entities that host activist content. It is to be remembered that corporations are not bound by international human rights instruments in the way Nation States are. Therefore these corporations are open to deal with the content they host in any manner they choose fit, including choosing to hand over personal data to governments who practice Internet censorship without the consent of users and for illegitimate purposes. Specifically then regulatory efforts should not be aimed at the services of the new media companies so much as the undertakings made by these new media companies to promoting and securing their freedom of expression- and association-enhancing elements. Legislators should be interested in formulating procedures and/or substance relating to social media company’s: human rights obligations; approaches to content neutrality and, specifically, dealing with activist content hosted on their sites i.e. agreeing not to remove such content; dealing with requests from foreign governments for personally identifiable information; and their commitment to keeping their services open.

When a proposal such as the one suggested by Prime Minister David Cameron is made, Internet experts, human rights activists and digital natives must be attentive to the potential consequences of the actions of digital immigrants. It will be some time yet before digital natives come to the policy fore. Until such time as this occurs they must be vigilant in educating their more powerful colleagues, who are less familiar with the applications of the Internet, of its great democratic potential and aim to steer the regulatory debate towards human rights protection for individual users.

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