As part of last year’s launch events for the DAI Center for Digital Acceleration’s flagship Frontier Insights research on user perceptions of trust and privacy on the internet, two panels of experts helped underscore and widen the discussion around issues raised in the report. In the South Asia panel, a theme that emerged very clearly was the urgent need to build digital skills as a means to develop and maintain trust in digital services. Both the research and expert discussion highlighted the need for a multi-stakeholder approach to enable informed use and trust throughout the digital value chain.

Julia-b075d1.jpgSource: Global Citizen.

Andy Toft, a Senior Digital Adviser at the U.K. Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, advocated for a rights-based approach to support digital literacy, where development actors aim both to strengthen the capacity of the institutions obligated to fulfill holders’ rights and empower rights holders to exercise those rights fully. “There are different ethical and regulatory standards or principles out there and one set that we use within the department is the Principles for Digital Development stewarded by DIAL,” said Toft. “That principles-based approach can then be applied in various contexts with a user-centric design approach to help us understand users’ risk appetite and the benefits and tradeoffs that people are making. The report’s proposal for an additional principle around educating the user is interesting, and something that should be considered as a part of a refresh of the principles in the future.”

Natasha Jackson, Head of Public Policy and Consumer Affairs, at the GSM Association (GSMA), agreed that a principles-based approach in terms of regulation was necessary to ensure that government policy-protected consumers globally:

“There are a lot of requirements on mobile operators already for privacy and security in their license conditions and others. But what we need are laws that apply to all players: You can’t expect a user anywhere in the world, let alone those who may not be literate, to understand who is responsible for what part of the huge and complex digital ecosystem they’re engaging with. So if a user in India is using an app built in America on a phone built in China and operating system that’s from another provider, every player in that chain has an impact on what’s happening to the data, how the services are delivered and developed. And so the laws need to be consistent across the value chain so that however the service is delivered, those consumers are protected. Our recent report, Smart Data Privacy Laws, aims to help governments make sure that laws are fit for purpose and will survive the rapid pace of change in technology.”

Governments, development providers, and digital technology firms were not the only actors highlighted. Small businesses operating in an increasingly digital world, need to be equipped to ensure their services are protecting their customers. Jackson continued: “A lot of the internet is driven by big providers, big social media companies, large mobile operators. But I think what we need to do also is make sure that we support smaller businesses that are creating local content and services to build in privacy and safety by design into their product. This is especially relevant in emerging markets to support and maintain adoption of digital services serving users’ real, lived needs.”

Of course, all of these actors in the digital value chain would be nothing without the end users of digital services, and while these can range from the employees of public institutions to academics to lawmakers, the discussion focussed on the beneficiaries of development programs.

Sara Chamberlain, Digital Director at BBC Media Action in India, described issues she has encountered in her award-winning work bringing maternal health solutions to the frontline in India:

“In scaling and delivering mobile health solutions to tens of millions of women and hundreds of thousands of health care workers, we have struggled to explain issues of data protection and privacy to low-literate, low-income women,” Chamberlain shared. “A Data Protection Act is yet to be passed in India, and when providing free, beneficial information to citizens, the government is exempt from the regulator’s consent guidelines which govern commercial players.

“As a result, pregnant women were automatically subscribed to Kilkari—a free mobile education service about reproductive, maternal, neonatal and child health for new and expecting mothers that BBC Media Action designed and scaled with the government—when they registered their pregnancy or the birth of their child with the health system. Some families were understandably wary—asking, how does the government of India know I’m pregnant? Or that my wife is pregnant? How did they know that we’ve just had a child? Most people continued listening, making the decision that the information was valuable and that they could trust it—but some unsubscribed. They thought it was spam. So, investing in taking informed consent, really explaining services to people while rolling them out, I think is fundamental to ensuring reach and deepening impact at scale.”

Chamberlain also highlighted the role of basic literacy in supporting digital literacy. “It is very challenging to explain data protection to people who have never heard the word data and don’t know what the internet is. Even for those of us with advanced education, the terms and conditions we have to sign up to are extremely complex. How accessible are those to people who can’t read and write? And if you have a majority of the female population in many states in northern India who can’t read and write, who is going to spend the time and invest the money to help them understand what informed consent means? These are some pretty big challenges and I would suggest that along with educating users themselves we need some sort of Ombudsman to advocate for and protect their interests while those digital skills are being built.”

Toft said, “Digital transformation won’t go away, and not making the most of digital opportunities will end up worsening social and economic gaps. Trust is simply one of the most important factors in closing the digital divide. Finding ways to build digital skills to help users better understand and then choose what they do online and how they do it, will bolster trust in the digital tools we seek to leverage and consequently increase our development impact.”

What the report and the discussions around it made clear is that it’s not just one set of stakeholders that needs to take responsibility for increasing digital and media skills and literacy. It’s not just governments, although it’s very important that they regulate in a positive and constructive way. It’s not just technology companies and mobile operators, although it’s incumbent on them to ensure that their services and products make sense to their users. And it’s not just the development community, although we have massive potential for increasing digital literacy in our programming. We need to work across the public and private sectors, with civil society and academia in a coordinated fashion, to ensure we can equip users across the digital value chain with the tools to protect themselves and their customers, citizens, and beneficiaries.

For those interested in learning more and implementing digital skills-building initiatives, here are some toolkits that can support localizable digital and media literacy curricula in an open-source, dynamic fashion:

  • The Chayn Do-It-Yourself Online Safety Guide offers practical advice on how to mitigate risks when online—for example, setting passwords, using secure browsers, and staying safe on social media. It is available in multiple languages.

  • The GSMA Mobile Internet Skills Training Toolkit, available in multiple languages, has been designed for mobile-first contexts, and it includes a section on security and privacy, and online risks.

  • The Safe Sisters toolkit is designed for women and girls in Sub-Saharan Africa. It aims to simplify digital security issues, make them relevant to real users, and encourage users to take online safety into their own hands.

  • Mozilla’s Women and Web Literacy has a variety of digital literacy resources, including Teaching Kits on cyber violence, sexting, hacking, and online abuse. While the resources are primarily focused on women and girls, they can be adapted for different audiences.