Digital policy literacy is a critical element of digital literacy that emphasizes an understanding of communication policy processes, the political economy of media, and technological infrastructures. This paper introduces an analytical framework of digital policy literacy and illustrates it with examples of young people’s everyday negotiations of mobile privacy, in order to argue for increased policy literacy around privacy and mobile phone communication. The framework is applied to the Canadian context, where a small pilot study engaged 14 undergraduate university students in focus groups about their uses of mobiles and knowledge of mobile privacy issues. Preliminary findings show that while our participants were aware of a variety of privacy threats in mobile communication, they were not likely to participate in policy processes that might protect their privacy rights. The paper concludes with a discussion of why young people may not be motivated to intervene in policy processes and how their digital policy literacy around mobile privacy is mitigated by the construction of youth as a lucrative target consumer market for mobile devices and services. …14 students! The authors continue -
Canadian federal policy on the digital economy frames digital literacy initiatives as a crucial site for training youth in digital skills, defined as ‘the ability to locate, understand, evaluate, create and share information using digital technology’. Fluency in digital practices constitutes not only the basis for a thriving information economy, but enables a more connected and engaged citizenry; increased digital literacy will ‘open up new opportunities for all Canadians to participate in Canada’s democratic, economic, cultural and social life'.
In their submission to Industry Canada’s Digital Economy Strategy Consultation, the media literacy organization Media Awareness Network (now renamed MediaSmarts) argued for a comprehensive national digital literacy plan involving government, civil society, and educators, to strengthen the Canadian economy and enhance Canadian lives (Media Awareness Network, 2010). Based on a survey with diverse stakeholders, the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) positioned digital literacy — encompassing use, understanding, and creation of digital media content and technologies — as essential for achieving the ‘digital economy value chain’ of creativity, innovation, productivity, and competitiveness.
These examples illustrate how digital literacy is promoted as essential for Canadian youth in an increasingly technologically mediated society. Missing from these entreaties for digital literacy, however, is an explicit focus on the acquisition of knowledge about digital policy issues. Rather than being an essential component of digital literacy, digital policy issues are mentioned with reference to the mitigation of risks and to protect youth from harm by, for instance, averting online identity fraud or enhancing reputation management. Intellectual property policy is evoked so that youth can better understand what constitutes copyright infringement in order to dissuade piracy practices. In relation to privacy, regulatory development of tools for young people to protect their online privacy tend to focus on cultivating skills of individual information disclosure (e.g., the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada’s Youth Privacy portal), and the deliberate use of software featuring “privacy by design” principles (e.g., Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner Ann Cavoukian’s promotion of built–in privacy protections).
We argue that regulators’ focus on digital skills, and attendant discussion of policy only insofar as it addresses business issues such as fraud, piracy, and liability, obscures a consideration of the democratizing possibilities of digital literacy for civic participation (O’Neill and Hagen, 2009). Public discourse about digital literacy tends to frame youth as mere consumers. We concur with O’Neill, who contends that this focus on ethical individualism needs to be countered with an alternative vision foregrounding communication rights that would consider ‘the right to accessible information, the right to communicate and the right to privacy’. The digital policy literacy framework adds this crucial conception of rights to prevailing models of digital literacy.
A focus on communication rights directs attention to new challenges for literacy and pedagogy. Within communication policy research, digital literacy is said to be ‘gaining ascendancy, in key ways taking over the ground where audience studies once held sway’ (Livingstone, 2008). Digital literacy typically refers to the technical, cognitive, and sociological skills needed in order to perform tasks and solve problems in digital environments (Tyner, 1998). Notions of digital literacy can be traced to earlier accounts of ‘computer literacy’ in the 1980s (Bawden, 2001), and ‘information literacy’ in the 1990s (Behrens, 1994). By situating digital literacy as primarily comprising technical skills, the vestiges of the computer and information literacy approaches remain, most recently framed as the ‘21st century skills’ required for participation in a high–tech economy (Trilling and Fadel, 2009).
Alongside these instrumental versions of literacy in technological environments, critical variations of digital literacy draw from media literacy approaches concerned with the pedagogical impact of digital media in society (Alvermann and Hagood, 2000; Hobbs, 2011). Here digital literacy challenges notions of skills procurement; Buckingham, for example, describes how digital literacy cannot be seen ‘simply as a matter of “information” or of “technology,”’ but as a means of ‘cultural understanding’, which involves a critical perspective on the social, political, and economic implications of the ubiquity of information technology. This stance is furthermore intended to foster in young people critical analysis of the relationships between media and audiences, information and power, as a crucial element of participatory democracy in the twenty–first century (Kellner and Share, 2007; Livingstone and Brake, 2010; Hoechsmann and Poyntz, 2012).The authors conclude -
When illustrated by this group of young Canadians’ discussions of mobile privacy, the digital policy literacy framework highlights how young people’s mobile privacy is constructed as a consumer right. The participants in our study were all reasonably literate about mobile marketing practices, and understood that privacy was a tenuous right in mobile apps that are predicated on data collection. While they were concerned about their privacy in mobile and online environments, participants often felt ambivalent about privacy protection, given a lack of interest in making policy interventions and a feeling of mistrust toward wireless service providers. Moreover, the commercial infrastructures that govern privacy policies as legal contracts were framed in terms of surveillance and intrusion, but were often not explicitly threatening enough to take action against. Because this group of young Canadians expressed a fair degree of literacy about privacy settings, they felt that managing privacy on their mobiles was a matter of individual responsibility, and not necessarily a broader policy concern.
The trade–off that participants described between using the mobile service or app and relinquishing some personal privacy was framed as an everyday exchange governed by individual choice. Even if these young people claimed to understand the risks involved in having their data collected through mobile devices, they did acknowledge that not everyone shared their degree of literacy; as Nick said: ‘I think most people are blinded by the convenience of whatever service or product they have without actually looking deeper and realizing, oh wait, there’s all this other stuff that goes behind this that I wasn’t aware of that’s potentially going to bite me in the ass later.’ Despite this contention that ‘most people’ were probably unaware of the consequences of information disclosure, none of the participants suggested that federal regulation was necessarily an appropriate course of action to address mobile privacy concerns.
The role for the digital policy literacy framework in this context is to provide a rejoinder to the dominant consumer framing of privacy, in the form of a citizen–centric framing, whereby privacy is seen as a fundamental right in a democratic society. Given that privacy is shaped by current mobile and online marketing practices — and that government breaches of privacy also rest on commercial infrastructures of data collection, starkly illuminated by the recent revelations about the U.S. National Security Agency’s Prism surveillance program’s reliance on social media data (Greenwald and MacAskill, 2013; Rushe, 2013) — a citizen–focused framing lends a necessary policy imperative to delimit the power of commercial actors in determining how people’s information gets collected and used. Literacy around not only why information privacy is important, but also how it might be guaranteed through policy measures, is the first step toward getting people to participate in policy–making. Such an intervention into digital literacy more broadly is especially crucial for young people growing up with digital and mobile technologies as ubiquitous communication infrastructure. For youth entering civic life through technology, literacy about digital policy issues will shape their lives as both consumers and citizens as they negotiate the constantly changing contours of participation.