Posts Tagged 'digital citizenship'

Digital Citizenship

There is a social construction online that we call a place to live and work, to be counted as its citizens, for lack of a better word. Karen Mossberg defines digital citizenship as “the ability to participate in society online.” The definition makes sense, but I need to make some qualifications. I will understand here not only a “society” but in the sense of participating also in a meta-society online. To participate means to have access and or Internet freedom for short. Ability means inclusion, (digital) human rights, and net neutrality.

But why speak of citizenship in reference to the Internet?  Cyberspace has become a part of our social lives, it is a component of it just as education, social security or civil rights are, and moreover, it “has the potential to benefit society as a whole, and facilitate the membership of individuals within society” (Mossberg). As a means of being able to have a wider participation it is a social right and a part of citizenship as a whole, a right of membership in society.  Digital citizenship puts the emphasis on the right of access to and skills for use of ICTs.

The basic idea of citizenship, the set of rights of membership in society, is to ensure that a people within a society has a legal framework for equality and justice. Citizenship is there to prevent exclusion in any of its forms: from political or civil rights, from voting rights or education. In the same manner, digital citizenship could be understood as a legal and regulatory framework to prevent digital exclusion: the fact that a large number of people are prevented from using ICTs because of economical, educational or social reasons. This is sometimes referred to as the “digital divide”.

“Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us”: Barlow proposes a Cyberspace where ethical self-regulation will guarantee a kind of freedom from government control.  But first of all, we will need the real-world laws and regulations that empower and give the people the rights within a society to be able to access this new world.

Then we can begin to explore what are the consequences of a digital citizenship for Barlow’s world.

“A political society is not, and cannot be, an association. We do not enter it voluntarily” (Rawls). We enter citizenship not by choice. It is a system of social cohesion and mandatory for all. Therefore we expect that the political framework of citizenship ensures equality, human rights, social cooperation and reduces exclusion.

Social cooperation is regarded as having the elements for regulating social conduct, ensuring the fair terms of cooperation and of rational advantage: “then we can say without pretense and fakery that citizens are indeed free and equal” (Rawls).

Mossberg asserts that “digital citizenship encourages […] social inclusion”. In the same way that citizenship is not a choice, digital citizenship should not be optional. It is not a “nice to have”. The social agent must be able to ensure his rational advantage and prevent being subject to digital exclusion.

The Internet and cyberspace has in many cases been understood just as a private business, as in e-commerce. Or as an elitist “world of the mind”, in the words of Barlow, that may be accessed only by the chosen few that are able to understand its uniqueness, and that is not subject government control. But this is not right. The Internet is a social tool and the lack of regulation creates exclusion, which in turn leads to an unjust society, the very opposite of all cyber-utopias, Barlow’s included.

The Herd Effect

We digital citizens are sometimes described as a herd.  We follow leaders, gather at certain places to exchange information, roam.  The herd can muster collective action, very much like swarms, using the most basic signals and feedback.  The herd is also a New Commons and its social capital is digital information.  We can just feed on it, like at the social networking sites, or we can take action, like at the crucial time of the Orange Revolution.  The idea is the collective, the possible aggregation of information to make sense.

Following a part of the herd, I registered at a couple of weeks ago.  I became member number 58. is a website designed and managed by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society @ Harvard University.  The name comes from the fusion of “Herd” and “Verdict”.  The site aims to collect the verdict of the herd on various issues.  The first two are PC Health and Network Health.   Using a piece of software installed on every herd member’s PC, reports are sent back to with information about its characteristics, installed software and apparent problems. 

Given a large enough number of herd members active in the system, it could be a good source of information about which applications are causing trouble, which malware is extending and giving the herd a though time.  But it could also signal problems with the Network itself.  Problems that go beyond the merely technical.  For example, it could spot areas or countries where Internet access is being cut off, or filtering and blocking of sites is being practiced.   This could make it easier for digital citizens to by-pass restrictions on Internet access and censorship by using tools like Psiphon.  As such it could become a valuable tool for ICT4D and the movement for an open Internet.

But also other possibilities arise.  These are not at once evident, but could be a call for collaboration of a very different sort.  In one Gedankenexperiment, herd members could put to use their healthy computers to assist and clean up infected computers or “zombies”.  In this way a user that has advanced knowledge on how to fight off malicious software could help many users worldwide that don’t have the skills or that don’t know that their PCs have been sequestered. could very well become a place to start such actions and measure success.

See an article in MIT Technology Review: The Web’s Dark Energy: Community policing can make the Web safe, by J. Zittrain.

Everything Global?

Everything seems to be going “global”.  Some examples will show this:

Wars are looking more and more like global police actions, rather than international conflicts.

The financial systems allows money to flow globally, very much like in the heyday of the Gold Standard.  Even the Fed admits that it is constrained by global considerations.

Telecommunications and the Internet seem to know no borders, and speak their own language of transnationality.

News are hardly local anymore.  The canned products of CNN, BBC, WSJ and NYT, among others, assume a global audience and a global distribution.

Supply chains transcend the limits of the logistically possible.  The whole world seems like the proverbial “last mile” of old. 

Corporations operate unapologetically in a world not restricted to their regional offices, personnel and legal systems.  They become ever more like globally linked organizations, supra-national in nature.  Patents and copyrights are enforced globally.

Even terror seems to be global in reach and ideological claim.  Religions speak of hundreds of millions of followers.

But, in the face of all this, why do we still have to put up with nation-states?  And with the corollary: a very old idea of citizenship tied to the existence of the very same nation-state.  Does this markedly un-global idea of citizenship diminish the possibilities of individuals, both in the online world (economic and political rights) and the physical world (migration, exclusion)? 

I must say it does.  To investigate I will post here further.  I don’t think we will see the demise of the nation-state soon, but we will see a change in the character of citizenship.

Space, Change and Citizenship

We exist in a constant balance of freedom and constrain.  This is so in the physical space, in our spiritual and moral spheres, in our relationship with the economy, politics and the law, and it is the reality of our body in relationship with its surroundings.  The outcomes of evolution and ecology are an expression of balances and trade-offs.  Justice itself is a result of intentions and accidents.

All of these ecologies are subject to rules.  Some are just natural and maybe inmutable rules.  Most are man-made rules.  Rules that we have conceived and tweaked during centuries of social, technological and political life.

If we follow the achitectural analogy of the Internet (W.Mitchell), we can surely say that in the last 20 years we have significantly changed the space in which a large portion of humantiy dwells.  It is as if all of a sudden a new landscape with new and far away horizons had emerged.  A lanscape that is at once strange and alluring, because it promises to realize some of the cherished dreams of old: incorporality, persistence, freedom, liberty.   A new “cyberspace” beyond government control, as Barlow envisioned.  The architectural analogy is very useful, because it also allows to account for the effect of exclusion that this new “city” brings.  A great many people are not allowed to have a live behind its walls.

The new “space” has very interesting features.  It seems to transcend nations and governments, it is enclosed by technological and not physical barriers.  It allows for many forms of economic, social and political activity.  It has become an extension of our physical dimension and personality.  It has many of the characteristic features of architectural spaces: containers, roads, networks.  Public and private spaces.  It can allow for total control if mismanaged.

The most striking difference with the spaces we inhabit is that “cyberspace” claims to be free of control and regulation.  To follow J. Zittrain in his (mostly technological) argument for generativity, the Internet has been created with only two rules to follow: procastrination and reciprocity.  It is indeed the most basic ethical entente.  But as a political system it is going to fail as the reality grows complex with every day.  The barbarians are going to storm the city.

Among the many claims and justifications of the nature of cyberspace, the one that is most salient is the issue of freedom.  This has interesting implications.  Foremost the dissolution of the idea of citizenship.  Once we move into cyberspace we cease to have a citizenship status.  But this is only an illusion.  We are digital citizens.

But what is a digital citizen, what rights and duties do I have as such?  Up to whom is to define this?  Should we have a Digital Constitution?  Who has the authority to proclaim it?  The Internet is a Commons, a New Commons.  When we look at it this way we can start to think about the kind of regulation we would like to have, and by whom it is to be actuated.  The authority should rest in the New Commons itself.

It is very important that we move forward to establish the groundwork for a digital citizenship and the corresponding authority.  Otherwise we will face a “Tragedy of the Commons” scenario.  A moment when a shared space is ransacked and driven to failure by the attacks and abuse from freebooters and reckless national governments.  The idea of a Commons is to preserve the utility of the commonly held goods, while effectively defecting abuse and enclosure.  The role of a strong digital citizenship will be pivotal in this endeavor.



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