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Reflections on IGF 2011 - challenging myths about youth (#92), eParticipation and #opendata

Reposted from the UK IGF blog. 

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 recognised 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 w... 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.

Tim Davies is co-director of Practical Participation, an independent consultancy focussing on technology for civic participation and social change. Tim is also a PhD student in Web Science and Social Policy at the University of Southampton, looking at the governance of open government data.

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