We are only just beginning to understand the impact the Internet and communications technology is having on the Arab world. That was just one of many conclusions drawn from a recent conference in Doha jointly hosted by ictQatar and the Family Online Safety Institute called, "Promoting Online Safety and Cyber Ethics in the Middle East."
Panelists and participants alike described the many effects, both positive and negative, that ICT has already had on young people, families, schools and communities. Issues of addiction, over-sharing, cyber-bullying and easy access to pornography were just a few of the negative issues raised. It was also argued that the rise of social media in the region has had a liberating effect, with many acknowledging the multiplier effect of Twitter and Facebook during the recent uprisings and revolutions in the region.
However, having listened to local researchers talk about some of their pioneering work in studying the impact of all this digital communication and devices, I suggested that we barely know what we don't know in this field, and the need for more wide-ranging research is urgently needed.
One of the more compelling arguments came towards the end of the conference. Jeffrey Avina of Microsoft, who is based in Istanbul, suggested that there should be a pan-Arab online safety movement that comes out of this conference. That countries in the region should learn from each other what has already worked in the field of technology, education, parental awareness and law enforcement and stop trying to reinvent the wheel. Further, he suggested that there needs to be a pan-Arab online safety portal, where local research, educational materials, videos and guidance can be provided in Arabic for all who want and need access to it.
Former U.S. Ambassador David Gross opened the conference with a broad overview of the challenges facing governments and civil society in responding to the digital revolution taking place. He felt that there is great pressure on governments to do something about online safety and that this is a key moment in determining how legislators and regulators in the Middle East will react. His hope was that countries like Qatar seize the opportunity to develop a bottom-up, multi-stakeholder approach that values empowerment, education and a "culture of responsibility" over a more top-down, heavy-handed response. Qatar could lead the way in the region and provide an ideal example to others about how to provide a flexible and measured response to the growing challenges and opportunities that the new digital environment bring.
Costa Rican Ambassador Sylvia Poll urged young people and, particularly young women, to embrace ICT and to take up the enervating and exciting opportunities it brings. She wanted to see more women pursue careers in technology and demonstrated what an energizing force it has been in her own country.
In his presentation of the Global Resource and Information Directory (GRID) FOSI's EMEA Director, Dave Miles pointed to a number of key themes: the need to combat illiteracy; the voice and expectations of Arab youth; and the need to create more Arab-speaking online content. He explained that according to a U.N. report, "the most evident and challenging aspect of the region's demographic profile is its 'youth bulge.' Young people are the fastest growing segment of Arab countries' populations. Some 60 percent of the population is under 25 years old, making this one of the most youthful regions in the world." While ICT is not a panacea, it is a vital ingredient to spark an economic revolution in the region and one that ictQatar and others are championing.In a recent article in the San Jose Mercury News, Larry Magid, co-director of Connect Safely and who moderated the panel on social media, noted,
Just as the Internet can't cause a revolution, it can't stop one, either. While government leaders and mainstream politicians can use it to mobilize their own supporters and spread their messages to the public, a good website can't make up for oppressive practices or social conditions that cause unrest. However, in the hands of governments that are genuinely interested in transparency, technology can play a major role in encouraging civic engagement.
And so, the idea of digital citizenship, which includes the notion of both rights and responsibilities online, emerged as a unifying theme for the conference. No matter where in the world you live, we all share some responsibility for maintaining a safe and civil space online, while also exercising our rights to express ourselves and to join others of like mind in online communities, whether they be on social networks, blogs or gaming sites. In this way, bottom-up and self-organizing, we will best promote both safety and cyber ethics.