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Why Digital Literacy Must Go Hand in Hand With Online Security From The Start

As more people adopt digital tools and get online to harness opportunities the Internet has to offer, they become vulnerable to the vices of the Internet.

For a long time, the Digital Empowerment Foundation was using curricula designed by western technology experts, in languages more familiar to the Western audiences, to use technologies designed in the West. However, our on-ground experience in a country where as much as 67 per cent of the population lives in rural areas and where functional literacy rate is far less than the official literacy rate of 74 per cent, helped us realise that we needed to especially design a curriculum for the rural and tribal communities that are not literate in the traditional sense but are dependent on oral, audio-visual and non-script languages.

So we designed a special curriculum and toolkit called START to meet the digital learning needs of the oral communities through a pedagogy that focuses on an offline and non-digital approach to learning digital technologies. This toolkit included interactive memory games to familiarise oneself with digital tools, “find the odd one” card game to learn about tools of a computer, crossword puzzles and find the pair to understand the use of various applications and more.

However, a couple of years ago, we realised our efforts were incomplete. As we were trying to take more and more people to adopt digital tools and get online to harness the opportunities the Internet has to offer, we were also making them vulnerable to the vices of the Internet. In the absence of complimenting their digital literacy skill building trainings with media and information literacy (MIL), we were exposing them to almost infinite information, however, not equipping them with the sensibilities to access, understand and critically analyse information.

Also read: What Does it Take to Build a Truly ‘Smart’ Village?

This realisation becomes stronger with the growing instances of cybercrimes, online harassment, stereotypes, hate messages, fake news and more, the impact of which has been more so in the last couple of years than ever before. And so, we decided that we no longer could only be responsible for bringing the offline communities online but also had the responsibility of keeping them safe online as well as ensuring they do not make anyone else feel unsafe due to their digital presence and freedom of expression.

Given the times we’re living in, we understand that digital literacy must go hand-in-hand with online security from the very first step. And why not? An IAMAI report states that India had 481 million internet users in December 2017. This number was set to reach 500 million by June 2018. Buoyed by increased internet penetration in rural and urban areas and the ubiquity of inexpensive mobile devices, this number is sure to keep rising. The Asia Pacific alone accounts for 51 per cent of global internet users already. As the number of Internet users rises in the world, so too will the vulnerabilities brought on by the use of technology and its more unsavoury effects.

It cannot be denied that the online space has transformed into a public space. Facebook and Twitter have become places where people make friends and socialise, e-commerce websites compete with the humble kiranawala, Instagram has replaced holiday albums, WhatsApp has changed how people communicate, and there are a number of educational apps to supplement learning today. Our online or virtual lives are so intertwined with the everyday, tangible world that there is little need to make a distinction between the two anymore. Then there is the cloak of anonymity, which comes with its own positives and negatives.

With this realisation, we began to expand the START digital literacy toolkit to become a digital and media information literacy toolkit. It now included a modified version of snakes and ladders to understand online security and safety, a hands-on module on how to spot and verify misinformation, and various activities to create conscious producers of content online. As we go forward, we also plan to include games and activities that make one question their prejudices, stereotypes and even freedom of speech so that they neither become consumers nor producers of fake or hate messages.

With a push from the government and private players to switch to cashless or digital processes, our interactions online are bound to grow in leaps and bounds in the years to come. ASSOCHAM reports that the number of online shoppers has increased from 69 million consumers in 2016 to having crossed the 100-million-mark in 2017 (when more than half of India’s population is not even online). At the same time, cybercrime cases have seen a spike — data from the National Crime Record Bureau shows that cybercrimes have risen 6.3 per cent from 11,592 reported crimes in 2015 to 12,317 in 2016. Gender-based crime alone is high. A study by Norton by Symantec has found out that 41 per cent of women have faced sexual harassment online.

Also Read: The Online Game Which Helps You Get Better At Creating Fake News

This is an important safety and security issue that keep women away from the Internet. These are also excuses used by our patriarchal society — by the males in households or the khap panchayats even — to disallow women from using a smartphone. In India alone, mobile subscriptions have crossed over the one-billion-mark, but women constitute only 17.4 per cent of mobile subscriptions in the country, according to the Department of Telecommunications data for 2018.

In the physical world, we have the police and laws to protect us. As children, we are taught how to recognise danger and avoid dangerous situations in the real world. The same should apply to the online world. ProjectWaat.org (Women Act Against Trolling) is a small initiative of ours that provides a Web database of crucial information and resources that will help victims of cybercrimes, especially gender-based cyberbullying and harassment. But such lone efforts aren’t enough. They cannot be effective if the larger system of governance and law enforcement is not efficiently implemented. There are plenty of stories of women who have been stalked or harassed online; most of them never report the crimes to the police, and those who do are rarely satisfied with the police action. And so we need good laws and effective law enforcement. Most importantly, we need to protect each other and ourselves against cyber-crimes.

Security officials and tech companies could certainly be more diligently about handling our data. But what is most important is that we form a civil code for the internet – a digital etiquette if you may that sets out good behaviour from bad, harmful actions from helpful ones. This may come more easily to digital natives and those of us who have been using the Internet for a while but it is crucial that we promote this among first-time users — users in rural India who use WhatsApp as a gateway to the rest of the internet; those who may not know what phishing looks like and actually think that the Nigerian prince will hand over the promised money.  

Also Read: Why The Future Is Arriving Faster Than You Think

Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan and mBillionth awards. He is member, advisory board, at Alliance for Affordable Internet and has co-authored NetCh@kra–15 Years of Internet in India and Internet Economy of India. He tweets @osamamanzar.

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