My Take on the EYE2021’s Youth Ideas Report
Author: Ana Luiza Loio
When 10,000 young people reunite to discuss the future of Europe and celebrate the Union, you know only good things can happen. Panel debates, workshops, sports activities, stands, artistic performances… and loads of exciting ideas to be implemented at the pan-European level! That was this year’s edition of the European Youth Event (EYE2021), which took place on the 8th and 9th of October, both physically at the European Parliament in Strasbourg and online. Among the topics explored at the event, the theme of digital transformation is of central importance to Netwerk Democratie’s work. At NetDem, we were lucky to be represented by our co-director Anne de Zeeuw, who participated in the panel discussion ‘Digital Democracies: Threat or Opportunity?’. Now, the event’s final report is available for consultation – and I couldn’t help but comment on the youth’s most prominent ideas that it features.
The Youth Ideas Report
But first, here’s a bit of context for clarification: the EYE2021 report is the result of a youth consultation process organized by the European Parliament in light of the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFE). For the six months leading up to the event, the Parliament invited youth to share their ideas on the issues Europe faces today and the potential developments for the Europe of tomorrow. One of the first steps towards digital democracy in action at the European level, this conversation took place on Youthideas.eu. Some of the most popular ideas featured were taken to EYE2021, where participants further developed them. The Youth Ideas Report gathers the 20 most prominent ideas, voted on by all EYE2021 participants. The report has been presented to the members of the CoFE and will feed into the political debate of the Conference.
A ‘Digitally Literate’ Europe?
Out of the most relevant ideas to NetDem’s work on digital democracy, I was especially interested in the suggestion to educate children on the safe use of social media. Yet, the first two strategies proposed in the report were rather disappointing. First, that is “integrating digital literacy into the school curriculum”. Second, “celebrating international digital days, during which children will be provided with practical and theoretical lessons”. The term ‘digital literacy’ implies a set of skills children must acquire, in this context to keep themselves safe in social media. But what are these skills? To what social media platforms do they apply? To what threats do they respond? Designing a ‘digital literacy’ curriculum to be taught all throughout Europe would entail defining which social media platforms should be considered, selecting a few of the many contexts in which children may be unsafe in these platforms, and deciding which of the various protection strategies available are best. But above all, implementing a digital literacy curriculum would mean giving some European authority the power to determine what “safe” even means. And, quite frankly, this is an issue that even the most experienced policymakers in the technology area are still struggling with.
Don’t get me wrong, I do think a truly democratic internet would require children and parents to be fully aware of the uses of their data and of the implications of that for children’s current and future lives. Educating children on social media and internet use, in general, is a step towards that direction. But effectively doing so will require much more than fixed guidelines for good practice. And that is because ‘digital literacy’ overlooks individual context. It fails to realize that even what is considered a basic skill today may become outdated in a couple years, as technology changes fast, and so do the opportunities and threats that come with it. Rather than acquiring certain hard skills for online safety, children should be taught about the digital world critically and holistically. A European curriculum to educate children on the safe use of social media should help children reflect on the motivations and implications of their online behaviours. And it should lead them to understand the various scenarios and financial incentives for the use and misuse of their personal data by others. With these objectives in mind, the two other strategies contained in the Youth Ideas Report – to “use interactive games as learning tools” and to “create a simulated social media platform, so children can learn about the danger of cyber attacks” – may be made helpful.
The second idea proposed by the report, to “strengthen EU legislation on cybersecurity”, is much more spot on. Legislation that focuses on protecting citizens from cyberattacks is very much needed. An indication of this is the fact that the World Economic Forum’s yearly Global Risks Report has been ranking cyber threats as one of the primary global risks consistently since 2017. Surely, the European General Data Protection Legislation (GDPR) offers some protection against data breaches. Yet, the GDPR concentrates mostly on the obligations of business, nonprofit and governmental institutions operating in the EU. Current legislation does not effectively cover attacks or vulnerability exploitations launched by individuals or states against their citizens.
Plus, the idea contained in the Youth Ideas Report to create a European “committee of experts who will represent all Member States and define what a cybercrime is ” would allow for a broader understanding of the issue. It would give the committee the power to define cybercrime as more than just unconsented access to data and functions within a system for malicious purposes. Cybercrime could also include, for instance, hate speech, the spread of fake news, or the design of online services and platforms to exploit users’ psychological vulnerabilities – among many other examples of abuse and misconduct. The idea contained in the report to keep such an EU institution “shielded from potential lobbying and large corporations” would give it even more freedom to broaden the definition of cybercrime to cover more than just cyberattacks, and to update the legislation over time.
But we need anonymity!
On the other hand, the other suggestion given in the report to strengthen cybersecurity in Europe – legislation requiring user ID verification to fight online anonymity – sounds to me like a terrible idea. Doing so would partly kill the spirit of the internet, where people should at least theoretically be free to play and experiment with their identities without being constrained by any fixed categories assigned to them in the real world such as name, age, gender, race, etc. And what’s more, this identification requirement could be problematic for democracy in that it would restrain freedom of expression and make users who choose to openly speak up vulnerable to repression. For instance, anonymity currently allows for sexual violence survivors to share their experiences without the fear of being judged or discriminated against.
Finally, an ID verification requirement could be anti-democratic in that it could give Big Tech companies even more unchecked power. Requiring online platforms to ask for user identification information would mean giving these companies the ability to assign a real name and face to user data profiles – digital dossiers containing algorithmically collected information about user online behaviour. It would give online platforms even more access to its users’ intimate lives when the biggest of these platforms – such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft – already amass vast amounts of detailed information about us. The misuse of such power could have great and unpredictable consequences for users’ online and offline lives.
The participants of EYE to whom the ideas contained in the report can be credited are part of the first generation of digital natives – children who grew up amidst ubiquitous technology. As such, it is not surprising that they show such obvious concern for online safety. As a young person, I too understand the internal conflict that comes with knowing the risks one runs in today’s digital landscape while still caring so profoundly for the possibilities the online world has given me throughout my whole life. EYE2021 participants are well-intentioned in their digital transformation ideas, and I’m glad these were brought up. But I’m also happy I can write this post and reflect on the unintended consequences some of them might bring about. In the end, that’s what digital democracy is all about!