Some Thoughts on Youth Participation at the IGF
Workshop #277 in Siwa Room 9 was bursting at the seams. They had to bring in extra chairs and more than once my laptop screen was bumped, nudged and shaken by large bottoms and smooth, dimpled elbows jostling for a better shot. Cameras flashed and popped, and people from the meeting rooms next door were later overheard complaining about the noise. Who were these celebrities? They were about 20-30 young people enrolled in and leading youth participation activities through two organizations – Childnet International from the UK, and the Cyber Peace Initiative (or, ‘Net-Aman’ meaning Net-Safety in Arabic) of the Suzanne Mubarak Women’s International Peace Movement – and their trainers, minders, parents, teachers and friends, as well as a UK Member of Parliament, Rt. Hon. Alun White, and representatives from the SMWIPM. Childnet International works on internet safety issues for young people, and Net Aman supports internet access, training and exposure to young people in urban centres like Cairo and Alexandria.Both organizations have conducted research, training and awareness raising activities around internet use, access and safety. They also have decision making and leadership structures that encourage youth participation.
Despite their different cultural and physical realities, youth from both the UK and Egypt had common demands: we want to be heard, we want to sit in when internet policy is being made about things that affect us; we want freedom and safety; we want to go everywhere on the internet but we don’t want to be harassed, hacked, spammed and we don’t want our Facebook pictures to belong to Facebook. (Seriously, if Zuckerberg & Co could copyright every mention of the word Facebook, they would have made a lot of money at this one session). Eventually though, they were asking for something at best idealistic, at worst naive: the right to be fully protected and informed consumers of a commercial service like Facebook (or other social networking sites) as if commercial entities have a history of being nice to their consumers and giving them what they want just. It was a little like hyper-consumerism at no cost, please.
The other issue that was raised was a demand for the same rights for children both offline and online; this was also mentioned in the session I blogged about yesterday where David Miles of the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) said that in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child there was a campaign to add a codicil to the UNCRC to include this. In this context an Egyptian student said this should include freedom of expression and access to information online and offline, which is particularly poignant considering Egypt is pretty much a police state that has a history of restricting free speech; the irony of the First Lady promoting the CPI is therefore both sad and hilarious. The education and outreach managers of Childnet International who were facilitating the session clearly had an agenda to promote this idea of the same online and offline rights however no critical discussion was possible given the nature of this session.
The session was a showcase for these two organizations’ work but could not really provide any real engagement with what young people actually did online and what they felt about it. Safety was consistently mentioned but with the exception of cyber-bullying, the threats were assumed and not spoken of. Access was consistently mentioned but there wasn’t a single disabled or underprivileged child who spoke. One young man even said “I only just learned that in Africa there are children who don’t know what the internet is.” There was no sense of history to these organizations’ engagement with the idea of the information society or the internet; WSIS had a youth caucus that was vocal and strong but one that eventually dropped out of the story as the youth grew up, went to college and got jobs. Why was there no engagement with that history? Why was there no mention of it?
It was difficult to ask a question in this session and when I did in the following session on ‘Youth and Internet Governance – A Way Forward’ it was ignored, like a bad smell. I wanted to know what young people really thought about the enormous space given to child protection lobbies to press for strong content regulation. If they did indeed want to ‘go everywhere’, then what did they think of adults who thought they oughtn’t to go everywhere? What did they think about ‘protection’ as a proxy to limit young people’s sexuality rights and expression? If there was no holistic state-sponsored sexuality-positive sex education in schools, and if there is no engagement with parents on issues of sexuality, then how is sexuality education for the online world possible? If youth did want to lobby for their right to safety online then how did they negotiate the tensions between wanting to be sexual and access sexual content and the threats the internet presented? A tweet from yesterday said “there is no mutual trust between children and their parents; this is the cornerstone of the problem” (from EL-Zayat on #igf09). How do parents and children feel about this complex situation that is only as old as the hills? A young Finnish presenter in the Youth and Internet Governance forum spoke strongly against content filtering and likened governments to ‘over protective parents’. I asked him these questions again and his response was interesting: ‘I always had access to sexual content and I turned out fine.’ The thing is, I don't know the answers to these questions and I am really interested in what tweens think, but it was difficult to get them to speak independently about this. If any of you are reading this, please tell me. I am not sure theres a right/wrong, yes/no response - its not that kind of question(s). I want the long, complex, complicated version.
Both youth forums today looked like carefully stage-managed events displaying youth power and a youth movement for participation in internet governance but on adult terms. I think it takes a lot more to really take movements to the highest levels of decision-making. What happens when these kids grow up and want to get jobs … ? I’m tempted to draw on the history of the women’s movement but I suspect the child rights movement is inherently different, and the issues are gripping and emotive in a way that women’s rights issues can never be. Who doesn’t want to save the children? Who doesn’t think that we should leave a better world for our children? Despite sounding like a jaded cynic, truth be told I can't reject these ideals. However, I am wary of the ways in which we adults co-opt these ideals in furthering our own agendas. I am willing to bet money that next year's IGF in Lithuania will have an even stronger youth presence and perhaps even more youth representation.
Responding to a panel of enthusiastic digital natives who poetically and dramatically asked to be heard so that they could secure the future for their children, a laconic comment from a Scandinavian parliamentarian summed it up for me: “ I don’t think you should worry about your children, they will take care of themselves the way you’re taking care of yourselves and the way we took care of ourselves … You do what you want to do and leave the future to its own destiny.”