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Final Project: Digital Citizenship and Exclusion

Digital Citizenship and Exclusion

Is there a strong link between the changing idea of citizenship in the digital age and social justice? In this essay I argue that digital citizenship is to be considered a part of the social rights of citizens, and that doing so should limit the impact of exclusion from participation and from governance of the Internet. That is not because digital citizenship changes what citizenship and nation-states are about. I will argue it is because digital citizenship changes the framework in which citizens engage in their social, economical and political activism. This change and its causes are important in the study of the Internet, of the social processes that are within it and helpful to make sure Cyberspace obtains the open and democratic qualities we value.

Imagined Communities

I am writing this essay on Pangea Day, the 10th of May 2008. 30 years ago I was a teenager in Costa Rica, Central America. In those last years of the 70s we as a society were rethinking the strategy of import substitution as conductive to economic development, and entering into what was later called the lost decade, the infamous 80s. Costa Rica felt still very much like the last place in the world to be for a teenager discovering what lies beyond: backward, tropical, conservative and with economic problems. Then there was an event that changed my perception of the world around me. It was not another political crisis or the devastating earthquake in Managua or the collapse of the Somoza government. It was technology in its mass media/TV incarnation.

Until the year 1979 there were 4 open television channels in Costa Rica. One was operated by the government and the others by private companies. But the government, and by extension the Catholic Church, very much dictated what was going on in television. The broadcasting of programs was seen as a public service, and therefore the government had an interest in regulation. Finally in 1979-80 a local cable company came into being that distributed television channels from the US, which it illegally “captured” via satellite. We all rushed to obtain a cable connection and have access to this new world of TV programming.

The day that our connection was ready and the TV set finally turned on the first thing on the screen was an ad by Eastern Airlines. What struck me first was not the thrill of being a consumer of US TV. The overriding feeling was the realization that at this very same moment thousands of Americans were watching the exact same ad. They did so from their reality and I did so from mine, both very different indeed. At the same time it was not some kind of TV show that got selected, translated, censored, refried and served to us by local TV stations. It was such an original piece of American TV junk. It gave me a sense of belonging, of participation in something bigger than my immediate tropical and dismal surroundings.

The first years of the 80s were marked then by the coming of MTV, ESPN and CNN. And by the access we had to a wide variety of that American pop culture which became a global reference. To this day I can discuss with people that were teenagers during the same period the details of the original MTV programming that were good and that inspired us. It is a connection we have despite of growing up in different countries and societies. We came to take part in a new society that was becoming global.

There was a channel from Chicago, which used to transmit the Chicago Cubs games. At the time Wrigley Field had no lights, the Cubs were not exactly one of the best clubs in the NL and the commentator was Harry Caray. The fact that the Chicago channel was available in a regular basis resulted in the Cubs developing a large fan community in Costa Rica (which did not include myself). After a couple of years the Cubs were a household name, as popular as any local soccer team. People discussed the games during lunch and groups of fans were organized to travel to Wrigley Field and see Ryne Sandberg. What is the probability of the Cubs of the 80s developing such a following in a place like Costa Rica, with no baseball tradition whatsoever? In fact, many years afterwards, as the Cubs won a World Series, one of the places they visited as champions was Costa Rica!

We as a society came to be connected to a larger place, and to be a participant in events that took place in other parts of the world. This “place” I would like to call an imagined community, in the sense that only the media could make it possible for me and us to take part in something that we did not know by experience, but could only imagine and construct in a process of cultural becoming. Arjun Appadurai developed a theory of rupture that “takes media and migration as its two major, and interconnected, diacritics and explores their joint effect on the work of the imagination as a constitutive feature of modern subjectivity.” (Appadurai, p.3). Imagination is the important part that lets me, as social agent, break my immediateness and become part of something else, which I live out as part of my reality. “It is the imagination, in its collective forms, that creates ideas of neighborhood and of nationhood, of moral economies and unjust rule []” (Appadurai, p.7).

With time access to a wide variety of TV programming is not a rarity anymore, but a daily fact in Costa Rica as (almost) anywhere in the world. Our society came to recognize that the need to belong was becoming a part of what our place and participation in the world is: to be informed, to have access to different sources, to use technology as a tool, and to get to know each other. The central issue was the growing demand for the ability to participate in a society that very quickly was becoming larger than our own town or country. And we came to recognize that our technological personae was becoming more than simple passive users, it was becoming a complementary part of our personality and of our citizenship.

“An important fact of the world we live in today (1996) is that many persons on the globe live in such imagined worlds (and not just imagined communities) and thus are able to contest and sometimes subvert the imagined worlds of the official mind [] ” (Appadurai, p.33). The experience was a pre-figuration of the combination of nation-state, citizenship and cyberspace that was becoming possible in the next years. For my argument now I will leave out the related issues of migration, transnationality and “flexible citizenship” (Ong) as a new “mode of constructing identity, as well as new modes of subjectification that cut across political borders” (Ong, p.18), since my focus is in the forms of participation within society enabled by technology rather than in the migrant diasporas that became possible in the same context.

Cyberspace and Virtual Society

Then a new and more powerful imagined community came into being in the 90s: Cyberspace. And with it what we now call a “virtual society” or “society online”. What is new is not that we are able to grasp our belonging to a larger community, or that technology enables us to do so but that the medium has become participatory. It is not just broadcasting and consumerism. A new place has been created called “cyberspace” that exists beyond our community and in which we are able communicate and to take action: personally, socially, economically and politically. This place is not “virtual”; it has its proper architecture and rules.

But why is it that we speak of a society, and not just of a group, a network or an association? Why is it that we regard cyberspace as a social Gestalt? The reason is twofold: first it is an extension of our social surroundings; it is version 2.0 of our imagined communities. Second we understand cyberspace mainly in political terms. One of the founding documents of cyberspace is a political manifesto by John Perry Barlow: A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. In it technology is of secondary importance to the rights, social and economic norms of the new digital world: “We are forming our own Social Contract [] may it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before” (Barlow)

We have established an “independent” virtual society online, and this society has its citizens, sometimes called also “netizens”. But it is not just an expanded and imaginary society; it is also an embedded society. It coexists, due to its lack of geographical location, with other societies and political groups (Barlow: “Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere”). It is not in contradiction to them, but is a complementary social form.

When I speak here of society I mean properly a “meta-society” that is formed out of the real-world society, the imagined communities and the online society of Cyberspace, all existing in one place, and in many cases contingent on access to ICTs. It is in this regard that public policy of the “host” governments is in need to deal with this extension to its traditional idea of citizenship, participation and social justice.

Digital Citizenship

Karen Mossberg defines Digital Citizenship as “the ability to participate in society online” (Mossberg, p.1.). I will understand it here to refer to society in the sense of meta-society. To participate means to have access to and be able to take action in the social issues that are happening in cyberspace, using the Internet. But why speak of citizenship in reference to the Internet? Cyberspace has become a part of our social lives, it is a component of it just as education, social security or civil rights are, and moreover, it “has the potential to benefit society as a whole, and facilitate the membership of individuals within society” (Mossberg, p.1). As a means of being able to have a wider participation it is a social right and a part of citizenship as a whole, a right of membership in society. Digital citizenship puts the emphasis on the right of access to and skills for use of ICTs.

The basic idea of citizenship, the set of rights of membership in society, is to ensure that a people within a society have a legal framework for equality and justice. Citizenship is there to prevent exclusion in any of its forms: from political or civil rights, from voting rights or education. In the same manner, digital citizenship could be understood as a legal and regulatory framework to prevent digital exclusion: the fact that a large number of people are prevented from using ICTs because of economical, educational or social reasons. This is today sometimes referred to as the “digital divide”.

“Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us”: Barlow proposes a Cyberspace where ethical self-regulation will guarantee a kind of freedom from government control. But first of all, we will need the real-world laws and regulations that empower and give the people the rights within a society to be able to access this new world. Then we can begin to explore what are the consequences of a digital citizenship for Barlow’s world.

Forms of Digital Exclusion.

“A political society is not, and cannot be, an association. We do not enter it voluntarily” (Rawls, p.4). We enter citizenship not by choice. It is a system of social cohesion and mandatory for all. Therefore we expect that the political framework of citizenship ensures equality, social cooperation and reduces exclusion. Social cooperation is regarded as having the elements for regulating social conduct, ensuring the fair terms of cooperation and of rational advantage. “then we can say without pretense and fakery that citizens are indeed free and equal” (Rawls, p.4).

Mossberg asserts that “digital citizenship encourages [] social inclusion” (Mossberg, p.1). In the same way that citizenship is not a choice, digital citizenship should not be optional. It is not a “nice to have”. The social agent must be able to ensure his rational advantage and prevent being subject to digital exclusion.

The Internet and cyberspace has in many cases been understood just as a private business, as in e-commerce. Or as an elitist “world of the mind”, in the words of Barlow, that may be accessed only by the chosen few that are able to understand its uniqueness, and that is not subject government control. But this is not right. The Internet is a social tool and the lack of regulation creates exclusion, which in turn leads to an unjust society, the very opposite of all cyber-utopias, Barlow’s included.

To better understand the instances of digital exclusion we can explore them starting from the intellectual traditions that give form to the idea of an equal citizen: the liberal and republican traditions, and the tradition of ascriptive hierarchy.

In the liberal tradition equality of all citizens is that of equal economic opportunity and choice. Its main manifestation is in the regulation of education. Citizens have a right to be educated and to exercise their skills in society.

Digital exclusion takes these forms:

  • Not having the skills necessary to access and use technology
  • Not being able to participate in online social networks that develop important new forms of social capital.
  • Not being able to perform work online. More jobs and economic opportunities are being offered online as a result of social production networks and business models like crowdsourcing and peer-to-peer production. (Labor on the Web).

In the republican tradition the main focus is in the political rights of the citizen, its ability to be a good citizen for the betterment of the community as a whole. Education is not seen as a way for economic opportunity but as a way of developing the capacity to demand and exercise political rights.

Digital exclusion takes following forms:

  • Inability to take part in civic and political processes that are happening in cyberspace, like emergent, participatory and semiotic democracy.
  • The prevention from taking advantage of property protection and rights.
  • Exclusion form exercising the rights of freedom of speech online and of access to information.

In the ascriptive hierarchy tradition the focus is on the rights of social groups based mainly on ethnic, gender and social aspects. The equality is expressed in rules like civil rights and affirmative action.

Digital exclusion takes following forms:

  • Prevention from access dependent on group membership, like in the cases of indigenous people in Latin America, African-Americans or Latinos in the US. In some cases it can also affect gender groups, like women in Islamic fundamentalist countries.
  • In some cases it expands to affect age groups, like the exclusion of school children from use of ICTs.
  • Exclusion that is a product of socio-economic groups, as in the case of the poor having markedly decreased options to access the Internet. This is not only an issue in developing countries but in the US and Europe as well.

The virtual society of cyberspace is a social reality that is here within us and that transcends borders and political groups. This new world has brought a series of new opportunities, but also new form of inequality and of exclusion.

The spread of the Internet has created an effect of connectedness and of participation in a larger, imagined community. But given the extraordinary opportunity that the Internet brings, it is also a worrying situation that many people are excluded, in one way or another, from the use and benefits of the Internet. It is not a question of access to technology. It is a question of the right to participate, as a digital citizen, in this new instantiation of society. The access to this instance may require from us that we learn new ways to communicate and to connect. But it is a place where in the future a lot of political, civic and economic activity will take place, and the same society must ensure that there are equal opportunities to all, that the technology will not become a new barrier to inclusion and expression.

The development of a clear concept of digital citizenship can help prevent exclusion. The fault of governments has been that while they profess their support for equality of all citizens, this happens only within the traditional idea of citizenship. In many cases it flatly ignores the digital rights and the growing cases of injustice that digital exclusion creates.

“When there are only three channels on the television in a nation, being famous means becoming famous to an entire nation; in the age of participatory media, we’ll see thousands of microcelebrities, people who are famous to their own small or large communities” (from Ethan Zuckerman’s blog). Such is the possibility of the new online society. It is to have more opportunities within many kinds of social groups, audiences and spaces. In the end, digital citizenship will foster the possibility of the “micro-celebrity”, the “micro-community” and the “micro-state”, new kinds of self-expression, new political spaces, new kinds of networking and of assertion of my social rights.

A framework for Digital Citizenship

The starting point to work out a framework for digital citizenship is to accept that cyberspace is not virtual; it is a real place with architecture and borders, where social participation is possible and where there is property and work. Having this in mind the important questions might be:

  • How can I participate? (i.e., Identification as a member of the citizenry, rules for access, taxation);
  • How can I obtain the skills needed? (i.e. Education, training); how is property defined and protected? (i.e. copyright, DRM);
  • How can I obtain the economic benefits and rational advantage? (i.e., work, commerce, social capital); and very important:
  • How can I exercise my political and social rights? (i.e. freedom of speech, activism, democracy, access to information, governance)

These questions open up wide fields for discussion and possible regulation. I propose the following as key elements to be addressed first when we consider in particular exclusion related to digital citizenship: Education and Governance.


When we speak of education in relationship to digital citizenship it means properly the development of new skills “to participate in society online” (Mossberg, p.1). Availability of access to ICTs is not enough if countries don’t prepare people to make productive and creative use of it. Jenkins mentions “a more empowered conception of citizenship” (Jenkins, p.3) in this regard, to “shift the focus of the conversation about the digital divide from questions of technological access to those of opportunities to participate and to develop the cultural competencies and social skills needed for full involvement” (Jenkins, p.4). What is important is widespread media literacy, not just availability of technology.

There are many deficiencies in the way we approach education and media literacy today. It starts with the problems of basic use and goes further to issues of responsible and ethical use. Policymakers should endeavor to define a comprehensive approach that enables the young to obtain the needed skills early on while in school, and lagging adults to have the possibility to learn them while in the workforce. “One of the key failures of many programs was that schools were provided with expensive equipment but with little o no support for teacher’s professional development, national ICT-in-education policies, or community involvement” (Hawkins, p.39).

Education is a social right associated with citizenship, a right to have access to the adequate kind of education we will need to be able to develop at a personal and professional level. Resnick calls it “digital fluency” making an analogy to the need of every citizen to speak the official language for ascription to the group. “In the years ahead, digital fluency will become a prerequisite for obtaining jobs, participating meaningfully in society, and learning throughout a lifetime” (Resnick, p.33)


Governance is at the center of the relationship between the individual citizen and the state. The citizen has a rightful claim to participate in the ways Cyberspace is being governed and regulated. But as the reach of Cyberspace is global, we encounter the fact that “acting independently, a single government is unable to guarantee that a person will be accorded rights in cyberspace” (Rundle, p.15). The regulations being enacted and codified into the internet are defined and decided within international bodies that make the participation of citizens difficult. We encounter a problem where representation at the national level is not helpful to influence decisions made by supra-national institutions, decisions that will ultimately have an impact on how citizens’ rights are going to be handled in cyberspace. “In terms of accountability to the public, there is a basic disconnect between organizations making Net policy and member countries’ citizens” (Rundle, p.16)

When we think of governance we have two main issues to consider looking into the future: one is how we can empower local governments to have a greater role in the supervision of supra-national regulators, and second how we can empower global citizens to have an effective participation in the decision processes for governance and the preservation of citizens rights in cyberspace. Both are no easy task, but in order to ensure an online society that maintains democratic values and remains truly open, inclusive and global we have to find new ways of dealing with these issues. In moving in this direction “the international framework for governing the Net could signal the early stages of a global federation” (Rundle, p. 19)


  • Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large. Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. 1996. University of Minnesota Press.
  • Barlow, John Perry. A Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace. Davos, Switzerland, 1996. http://www.cs.mu.oz.au/~zs/decl.html
  • Hawkins, Robert J. Ten Lessons for ICT and Education in the Developing World. The World Bank Institute. The Global Information Technology Report, 2001-2002, http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/publications/2002/The_Global_Information_Technology_Report_2001-2002
  • Jenkins, Henry. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. MIT.
  • Mossberg, Karen, et.al. Digital Citizenship. The Internet, Society, and Participation. 2008. The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA.
  • Ong, Aihwa. Flexible Citizenship. The cultural Logics of Transnationality. 1999. Duke University Press, Durham & London.
  • Rawls, John. Justice as Fairness. A Restatment. 2001. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  • Resnick, Michael. Rethinking Learning in the Digital Age. MIT. The Global Information Technology Report,2001-2002, http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/publications/2002/The_Global_Information_Technology_Report_2001-2002
  • Rundle, Mary. Beyond Internet Governance: The Emerging International Framework for Governing the Networked World, 2005, The Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Harvard Law School.
  • Zuckerman, Ethan. http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/



  • How can a clear concept of Digital Citizenship help prevent exclusion and foster equal opportunity in cyberspace?


  • People form communities and develop Social Capital online (see social capital)
  • People work online (See: Labor on the Web)
  • People become politically & economically active online (civil society and e-commerce)
  • People are connected globally (internet and borders)
  • People today are excluded from taking part in online activities worldwide

What is digital citizenship?

  • The right to access
  • The right to education
  • The right to equal economic opportunity
  • The right to intellectual property
  • Digital ID and Interoperability

How can it be achieved ?

  • At the local level
  • At the international level
  • Technologically
  • Culturally (as public reason, paradigmatic, Kuhn)
  • Legally (Justice as Fairness, Rawls)