Eastern Partnership Project was present at EPM Yerevan, which took place from 8 until 12 of March 2018. Here you are an article about the topics of the workshop proposed by our project and some pictures representing some members, who were present in the statutory event.
Digital Europe: are we already united?
The EPM came, the EPM passed, but the issues of digital borders, dividing and separating fellow Europeans, remain. During the European Planning Meeting in Yerevan, I have conducted a workshop on these issues, the conclusions of which shall be presented hereafter. But firstly, let me provide some input for those, who did not attend the workshop.
Digital borders are not simply connected to technology and the availability of internet, but are beyond that based on legal, normative and ethical decisions and fought about on various political stages. The first conclusion of the workshop was therefore, that we cannot look away, but must take action in the forming of the rules, which will govern the digital world in the future, not at least because we are spending an enormous amount of time online and simply know a multitude more about it than the men and women supposed to set these rules.
Based on geolocation technology, a great deal of these borders have been raised online: states attempt to impose their laws without international consensus about the boundaries of their sovereignty; companies, more and more necessitated to follow these local laws, do provide different services based on your location. As an example, Netflix and Youtube are limiting the variety of videos, you may watch and Google marks borders of countries according to the political position of the government of the country you are in. While these seem to be minor issues, they do have major implications. Many people, specifically those less accustomed to the pitfalls of the digital world, take fundamental information like the map of the world as true without question. Here, digital borders transform into differing convictions between these people, constituting mental borders. In Europe, the case of Crimea, being depicted as Ukrainian in Ukraine, Russian und Russia and disputed everywhere else, may be the best example of this induced divide between fellow Europeans, which is clearly in contradiction to the vision of AEGEE.
Since media is organised in companies as well, the current situation allows governments to censor online services: a pakistani’s twitter feed looks very different compared to a german’s one, but even this one isn’t completely uncensored. While the case of selective information distribution based on your location is grave, western democracies have their own controversies. Specifically, laws with regards to hateful and discriminatory speech online and the attempts of governments to combat these are providing the same governments with tools to swiftly influence your facebook feed. These tools are promised to be used in good faith and will be supervised by democratically legitimised representatives, yet remain effectful.
At the same time, the lack of international consensus and the technological capabilities provide the space for disinformation to bloom. Guided or not, intentional or accidental, the digital world became home to a never ending stream of unclear, unverified and unhelpful information. In turn, the inhabitants of this world grew confused; their beliefs shattered, some retreated into the safety of nihilism. This abundance of false information is already tackled by AEGEE through workshops on critical thinking and civic education, but it can also be confronted through a normative and ultimately policy based approach. While not the only reason, the situation contributes to a lack of trust in democratic institutions, western leaders and even democracy itself. Young people, being most active online, are consequently also most affected, something the workshop participants identified as an area in need of action by AEGEE.
Furthermore, this power vacuum left space for small groups of highly educated people to become extremely powerful in the digital world. These groups perform criminal activities, are hired as cyber mercs to perform constant cyber attacks or are volunteers, attempting to defend against these cyber attacks, oftentimes by striking back. These attacks are not limited to the digital world, but can inflict damage on the personal lives of millions of people through hacking your various accounts online. Furthermore, such attacks, may take down infrastructure like power grids and nuclear power plants, communication services and flight control networks. With the constant expansion and intrusion of the digital world inside the offline one, the possible damage will only increase.
The discussion during the workshop led the participants to recommend AEGEE to work out its vision of the internet of the future, including rights of users like the right to be forgotten and a charta of common principles in the digital world. The goals of this vision have been identified as providing equal access to all Europeans, combating hate speech and disinformation, strengthening democracy online and creating a safe environment for the the users of online services.
The importance of this topic and its relevance to our daily and professional life needs to be emphasized. Since the respective soft skills, starting with the knowledge about the current situation, are rather lacking in AEGEE, taking initiative to provide these through workshops or cooperations could be favourable for the association and our members. We should strive to make this brave new world, in which our minds spend so much of our daily time, safe, free and accessible to all Europeans!
The article is based on a workshop help at the AEGEE EPM in Yerevan in 2018