Digital Natives May Force Rethinking on Copyright, Privacy and Broadband

Expert Opinion October 16th, 2008

, Former Reporter, BroadbandBreakfast.com

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WASHINGTON, October 16 – As a part of its burgeoning lecture and discussion series, “DC Talks“, Google’s Washington office on Wednesday featured Berkman Center Director and Harvard Law Professor John Palfrey and his new book, Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives.

Accompanying Palfrey were Sarah Zhang and Diana Kimball, two Harvard students and digital natives who served as both research assistants and research subjects for the book.

What’s a digital native, you ask? Palfrey was clear: digital natives are not a generation, like the baby boomers, they’re a population. This is because when you were born (after 1980) is only a piece of the equation that qualifies you to be a digital native. Equally important is your access to and effective use of digital technology.

For the last five or so years, popular media has been interested in digital natives: whether the media had such a specific, quirky term for these folks is another story. Palfrey introduced his book by reviewing some of the myths about digital natives: they’re dumb, they’re impatient and seek easy solutions, their privacy is disposable, they’re all copy-pirates, and they’re constantly at-risk online.

Palfrey, Zhang, and Kimball then set out on a myth-busting analysis of the digital natives. Well, not entirely myth-busting: as it turns out, copyright violators are common among the digital natives, they are a pretty impatient and fast-paced bunch, and most of what was once held private, they’re posting on Facebook.

But through an extensive literature review, interviews with digital natives around the world, and some thoughtful analysis, Professor Palfrey and his cohorts also describe in the book a population of digital natives that is anything but dumb, that is as innovative as any before it, and that is sophisticated enough in the digital space to keep danger at bay and work out complex coming-of-age issues within the peer-group.

And to look a little deeper into the topics of online copyright violation and privacy, the three speakers presented videos produced by the digital natives project that showed digital natives engaging with these issues and working-out perspectives on file-sharing and living a not-so-private life online that both policy makers and record companies should be attune to.

This all got me thinking: what will Washington be like when digital natives are the policy makers? Will we see a dramatic shift in priorities that will lead to the development of new paradigms and new solutions for internet policy conflicts? Will a digital native in the White House do for broadband what Eisenhower did for highways?

I asked the panelists if they felt today’s policy makers and presidential candidates were really addressing the issues that are important to digital natives and the researchers seemed to say that they couldn’t be sure yet. It seems the digital natives are only beginning to come of age when it comes to their political and policy preferences and Professor Palfrey noted that contrary to popular belief, not every digital native has a blog supporting Obama or has a fundraising website in support of their favorite cause.

According to Palfrey, while those who do utilize digital tools for political or social causes have been successful, the majority of digital natives are politically active. Kimball added that even when they are using the web to make a political statement by joining a Facebook group, for example, there’s really not a lot of substance behind it. She concluded her musings with some questions similar to my own: the big question is how will digital natives change everything? How will they change the music industry? How will they change education? Even, how will they change Washington?

The answers remain to be seen, but one thing that was clear from the panelists was that access and proficiency are key. As Palfrey said, digital natives are only a population, not a generation. However, I believe an important policy goal should be to make them a generation, which means extending access to and proficiency in digital tools.

Of course, bridging the traditional digital divide of disparities in access will help create more digital natives who are economically competitive and politically and social engaged in the 21st Century, but Palfrey brings up another component of the digital divide within the digital native category, one between digital settlers and digital immigrants. The settlers were early digital masters who remain proficient with the critical tools while digital immigrants have limited mastery of only a few tools.

Thinking back on some of the issues discussed – privacy risks, political engagement, online safety – I fear that digital immigrants, though they may have achieved vital access, will be at risk and at a disadvantage as the larger population of digital natives ascend.

Though Born Digital is a book aimed at the parents concerned for the future of digital natives, many of the concepts are just as important for policy makers who should share that concern.

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