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Don't let etopians define net literacy

OFCOM: fit the net to people, not the other way round

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Comment Politicians around the world have made good political capital through celebrating domestic uses of IT. The vision of broadband-enabled homes, in which shopping, working and learning co-exist around the home, is a pleasant one, and provides a neat way of reasserting family values for the twenty first century.

But two things undermine this rosy picture. Firstly, as The Register reported back in December, few people are yet engaged in such wholesome activities. Secondly, the gradual convergence of broadband and broadcast technologies means that the rights and wrongs of what happens online can no longer be swept under the carpet. Less than two years after the UK’s Communications Act opted not to establish any form of internet regulation, policy-makers in the UK are beginning to re-think the laissez-faire attitude to network media.

While libertarians argue against government intervention in principle, and conservatives call for sweeping censorship at the first hint of immorality, the question for progressive policy-makers lies elsewhere. We should not be asking whether to regulate in general or what to ban in particular, but what good internet regulation would look like in the first place.

One of the policy levers that regulators are hoping to exploit is the promotion of "media literacy". The importance of media literacy is now generally agreed. Exactly what media literacy is finds less consensus. At one end of the scale it is the provision of a basic set of ICT skills that enable the owner to use new communication media proficiently. At the other, it is the ability to access, interpret and create new media content.

There are two particular pitfalls the media literacy agenda would do well to avoid. Both relate to misunderstanding the motivations of users’ actions online.

Various media literacy strategies have focused on getting individuals to understand the rights and wrongs of online behaviour. This has been the pursuit of rightsholder organisations in particular aiming to increase respect for copyright online. The most basic of education programmes seem to suggest that the only reason people engage in copyright infringing activity online is simply because they don’t know it’s wrong to do so.

But consumer surveys have shown this is not the case; it’s not lack of awareness that encourages bad behaviour, but the particular construct of the internet itself, including the absence, or different nature, of online norms of behaviour. There is a loss of public self-awareness that occurs online, which has led to individuals’ behaviour being characterised as dis-inhibited and self-absorbed. In the case of copyright infringement, rightsholders would do well to remember that technology presents a solution, rather than a problem to be overcome. The success of new business models such as Apple’s iTunes music store illustrates this perfectly: consumers are behaving when the technology is convenient enough to give them the chance to do so.

This links to the second pitfall which comes with the characterisation of the internet as being in the midst of a battle between anarchy and control - a fight between consumers and producers, rightsholders and the copyleft, and moral guardians against misbehaving users – and attempts to ‘empower’ citizens by educating them about this.

While the outcome of these battles do have important public policy ramifications, particularly for the intellectual property regime, we should not lose sight of the fact that for the majority of the public, these battles go unnoticed and bear no direct relevance to their every day life. There is a danger that media literacy teaching providing great detail in this area will increase people’s fear of the Internet and eventually drive them away from Internet use.

At present, the breadth and scope of content accessible via the Internet presents a different kind of choice to the one technology evangelists imagine. Instead of ‘where do you want to go today?’ the consideration is very much ‘shall I use the internet or not?’ Engagement with the internet very much depends on the extent to which services fit with the every day tasks and challenges citizens face. Convenience is key, and take up will very much depend on whether they make individuals’ lives easier or not.

Bearing this in mind, there are strong reasons to move away from educating citizens of all the freedoms the internet can offer towards recognising the strength of the argument for limiting choice with a focus on fitting the services to the citizen. This is not the same as saying that the World Wide Web as a whole be filtered to provide only government-endorsed services citizens feel safe with, but instead to recommend the provision of a walled garden service aimed at adults, and with a non-commercial bias that can provide access to functional services – such as electronic banking, local government information, and news – limit choice and empower citizens to use the Internet in a way which works for them, rather than being forced to consider the ‘battles’ that may rage in the wider Internet world.

The end goal of media literacy – to enable people to cope with, and to function in, a digital society – should be kept at the forefront of the development of any media literacy strategy. There is little benefit in following a more techno-evangelist agenda merely for the sake of it, particularly as this is more likely to reduce Internet use and confidence online.

Locating the middle ground between anarchy and control may not necessarily lead to the domestic bliss envisaged by etopian politicians. But it moves us away from the wild frontier, and its fruitless game of cops and robbers that has characterised policy-makers’ attitudes to the web to date. ®

Kay Withers is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research. This article is adapted from an IPPR paper Influence and Control: Getting Citizens to Behave in a Digital Society, published yesterday as part of the IPPR’s Manifesto for a Digital Britain.

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