Youth participation in internet governance – a european perspective

This post was first published at Comunicação e Política.

In a couple of weeks the NETMundial meeting is taking place in Sao Paulo, Brazil. This high­level meeting, intended to change the direction of the global governance of the Internet, might also change the roles of some supranational actors in this process. Even though some might say its a good counterbalancing alternative to US dominance in the field of Internet Governance, there are still stakeholders that are under­represented, young people being principal among them.

It might seem that young people are taking an active part in Internet Governance, yet conferences and meetings like ICANN, IGF, EuroDIG, and as far as can be seen NETMundial, paint a different picture. In 2011 at IGF in Nairobi it was clearly stated that young people don’t see the Internet as an anarchic playground, but expect their voice to be heard. Current governance models, however, tend to exclude young people completely from actively engaging with the topic.

One of the reasons for that is because the field of IG is complex and interconnected, and usually discussed at the international level. The topic is so profound and multilevel, that to be able to interact and participate one already needs to have a high level of knowledge, and preferably be already well known in the field. Debates are often highly technical or jurisdictional and difficult to follow, hence it is hard to participate. In addition it is difficult to be accepted by civil society groups when you are a young professional trying to find your own standpoint in this complex debate. This often leaves young people wandering around frustrated in the crowd of old white men at these conferences, not knowing how to get involved. All of the above create a high entry barrier for young newcomers.

This partly leads to the second reason: often IG means a small closed community with no official framework to allow participation. There is no institutionalized frame, which makes it difficult to get involved. Being open and transparent does not mean being inclusive or participatory.

In Europe the most common pattern to get politically active is through joining political youth organisations and forums. Sadly, there are hardly any youth organisations on the local or national level that deal with IG issues.So in case of social or political issues like sex education or youth unemployment, to access and deal with it would be common through local or national youth organisations, but that is not the case when it comes to digital rights or questions of governing the Internet. European youth organisations that are seriously working on the problems of digital rights and Internet Governance are mostly international.

Another problem, at least in Europe, is the Internet Governance bubble itself. In theory, there is a way for young people to participate in the dialogue through a multi stakeholder model. The situation is starting to change; there are now a few opportunities for the young generation to learn and participate, such as random internships or the annual EuroSSIG Summer School in Meissen, Germany for example. This might be a good way to start exploring the topic. However, in reality there is a lack of resources, notably skills and expertise.

The cornerstone of the problem is civil society itself. Civil society organisations have an important role to play in regard to giving access to a specific policy field by providing resources and expertise for beginners. Organisations active in this field are gathering a lot of expertise but they are also very closed in comparison with other fields. Well established youth organisations are not dealing with IG topics at all and there are very few attempts by new organizations to do so. Political bodies like the European Youth Forum, are explicitly trying to stop attempts to work in this field, as they view it as something unimportant.

Altogether ­ the high entry barriers, no institutionalized access and a civil society that is not incentivizing youth organisations ­ make it very hard for young people to participate in the IG processes even though they are able to contribute with their experience and provide a valid point of view.

Anna Orlova and Silvio Heinze