In her January 21st speech on Internet Freedom, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke emphatically for the need to ensure that the freedoms of speech, assembly and religion be respected online.
She threw a virtual gauntlet down to China, demanding a fair and transparent investigation into the hacking of Google's servers by Chinese sources, who allegedly sought information and data on dissidents and opponents of the government. And, in a more positive passage, she made reference to what the State Department calls, 21st century statecraft - the use of digital technology in diplomacy and the desire to empower and not overpower others, be they allies or developing countries.
Clinton cited the use of Twitter in getting out the news from the streets of Tehran and how texting saved the lives of kids buried in the rubble after the terrible earthquake in Haiti. "No nation, no group, no individual should stay buried in the rubble of oppression. We cannot stand by while people are separated from the human family by walls of censorship. And we cannot be silent about these issues simply because we cannot hear the cries."
The concept and practice of 21st century statecraft, while yet to be fully defined, is a remarkable mash-up of Silicon Valley and Foggy Bottom and if it is allowed to flower, will have profound implications not only for US foreign policy, but for how we think of ourselves as citizens - of a country and of the digital world we increasingly inhabit.
While the tech-savvy folks at State are working on the new diplomacy, an initiative that began in 2002, Partnership for 21st Century Skills (or P21, for short), may provide an interesting model for them to emulate. Founded by the visionary, Ken Kay, P21 and its members "provide tools and resources to help the U.S. education system keep up by fusing the traditional 3 Rs with the essential 4 Cs (critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration and creativity and innovation)."
The Partnership is acutely aware of the "profound gap between the knowledge and skills most students learn in school and the knowledge and skills they need in typical 21st century communities and workplaces." P21 emphasizes the need for media literacy and interpersonal skills, critical thinking, global awareness, financial and civic literacy. In another words, young people need to be armed with the kinds of abilities and tools to be fully active and productive citizens of our new century.
What is striking about these two approaches - one educational, the other diplomatic - is their wholehearted embrace of the new realities of our intensely connected world. And they both have implications for a radical re-think of citizenship. What are the rights and responsibilities we take for granted in the "real" world and how do we infuse these in our digital lives? What are the new norms of behavior and "civic" duties in the social networking, blogging, twittering and instant messaging spaces of our online lives?
It's time we begin to build a model of 21st century citizenship, working off the P21 playbook and linking this to Secretary Clinton's vision of how we conduct our international relations.
One potential bridge can be found in the work of the online safety movement, which has been dealing with the dynamic tension of protecting kids online while also respecting free expression for the past 15 years. This field has travelled through the developments of labeling and rating systems, early, clumsy filtering tools, top tips for parents, educational efforts and pioneering research. Recently, the safety community emerged from a period of "techno-panic" over the incessant media drumbeat of fear of online predators. Mercifully, the program "To Catch a Predator" has been confined to the archives of the worst television series ever produced.
So there has been a conscious turning away from fear-based messaging, to one more aligned to academic research and the actual realities of our online lives. Statistically, kids are the biggest threat to other kids and to themselves through cyberbullying, sexting and overexposure of all kinds, rather than the unknown stranger striking in the middle of the night.
While there is a recognition that there must be a base-line of safety - using filters for younger kids and monitoring and privacy settings for the older ones - the emphasis is now placed on education, media literacy and a new kind of civics. It's time for kids of all ages to understand and value the rights of free speech and assembly (ie, connecting through social networking and other means) as well as an expectation of privacy and safety.
And with those rights, go an important range of responsibilities and duties. These include the need to respect others views, even if they disagree with them, to adhere to terms of service (however lengthy and obtuse) and the rules regarding fair use, flaming, accessing or uploading porn, and so on.
Just as we teach our kids to help at the scene of an accident, or to report a crime and to get involved in their local community, so we need to encourage similar behavior online. To report abusive postings, to alert a grownup or the service provider of inappropriate content, to not pile on when a kid is being cyberbullied, to be part of the solution and not the problem.
We need to use what we've learned about social norms to align kids and ourselves with the positive examples of responsible behavior, rather than be transfixed and drawn towards the portrayals of the worst of the web. It may be true that one in five kids have been involved in sexting, but that means the vast majority exercise good judgment and make wise choices online. The social norms field is ripe with possibilities and guidance in how to foster good digital citizenship.
Just as the ancient Greeks used the amphitheater to work out the basic principles and practices of democracy, we need to use the web to have a discourse about ways to civilly conduct ourselves and to create fair rules to govern and manage our online lives and communities. We have to marry the innovative approach of teaching 21st century skills with the new notions of digital diplomacy and create 21st century citizens to inherit and inhabit this new found digital land.
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