Asserting Rights Online, Part I: Online Intermediaries and “Digital Citizenship”
Recently, Danielle Citron has initiated a discussion at Concurring Opinions regarding the subject of online intermediaries and digital citizenship (here, here, here and here), one that I would like to take up here. In doing so, however, I do not mean to provide a formal reply; rather, I wish to clarify some concepts and propose a reframing of certain issues in order to strengthen and further Citron’s arguments.
The discussion, as it has unfolded so far, is grappling with two distinct (though not unrelated) issues: 1) the affordances—and subsequent responsibilities—of platforms offered by online intermediaries and 2) the rights and responsibilities of digital citizens to one another as digital citizens. I find Citron’s arguments regarding the latter to be her most compelling, rooted as they are in liberal notions of respect, and do not wish to address them at this time. Instead, I will focus first on the affordances of platforms offered by online intermediaries and what claims we can justifiably make on them.
Asserting Rights Online, Part II: Why “Digital Citizenship?”
In the previous post, I introduced the discussion of online intermediaries and digital citizenship started by Danielle Citron over at Concurring Opinions. After briefly introducing part of Citron’s case, I raised some of my own concerns over the need for a separate conception of “digital citizenship,” and I wish to elaborate on that issue below.
In the first post of her series, Citron points out that “[c]itizenship is not simply a matter of legal status enjoyed by members of a body politic, though it serves that crucial role. It refers to one’s engagement in public life as well.” She invokes Dewey and J.S. Mill to further flesh out a broad conception of citizenship. In her second post, she expands the conception – rolling out a bevy of citations ranging from Alexis de Tocqueville to Robert Putman – to discuss the ways in which online intermediaries, such as Google and Facebook, generate digital spaces for civic engagement and, in turn, express the idea of citizenship. She cites Amy Gutmann in a quote that gives the most illustrative account of how online intermediaries do this: the “more economically, ethnically, and religiously heterogeneous the membership of an association is, the greater its capacity to cultivate the kind of public discourse and deliberation that is conducive to democratic citizenship.” Certainly, online intermediaries represent just such associations – in some cases, staggeringly so, especially when we consider the total diversity of Facebook’s hundreds of millions of users.
But saying that online intermediaries create spaces that are conducive (to use Gutmann’s wording) to the activities of citizens is different from claiming, as Citron does, that “they facilitate the formation of a citizenry.” The former implies an already existing citizenry, the latter seems to be defining a new type of citizenship. In Citron’s case, this new type of citizenship is “digital citizenship,” the rights and responsibilities of which she is pressed to articulate in the fourth post in her series. However, Gutmann’s quote, as I take it, simply means to illustrate the ways in which certain types of associations can cultivate a public discourse favorable for democratic citizenship generally. It does not claim that “economically, ethnically, and religiously heterogenous” associations generate new citizenries. So, why does Citron think that the members of associations represented by users of online intermediaries require special designation? Why “digital citizenship?”
Asserting Rights Online, Part III: Online Intermediaries, Mutual Respect, and Reasonableness
In the first post of this series, I briefly introduced Danielle Citron’s recent discussion of online intermediaries and digital citizenship and suggested that, as it stands, her arguments do not fully justify her normative claims – that is, simply pointing out that online intermediaries create spaces that “express the idea of citizenship” does necessarily imply that these same intermediaries ought to treat their users as digital citizens. In the second post, I wondered if a conception of “digital citizenship” is even necessary and, at the end of the post, suggested that it is not. In this, my third and final post, I will explain why I do not believe the concept of “digital citizenship” is necessary. In doing so, I will suggest reframing the issue around a principle of mutual respect that I see as the driving force in Citron’s argument.