It’s my second day at the Internet Governance Forum in Nairobi, Kenya and I must say it’s truly an awesome experience. Great weather, extremely nice people and an amazing ICT atmosphere in the Forum. The first workshop I attended was about protecting vulnerable groups online and safeguarding them against the various risks they may encounter.
You’d expect this to be a cliché session where speakers would just share stats about online risks, or call for protecting children against cyber threats. But the session actually turned out to be a real debate on the definition of online vulnerability and the types of online risks that could actually take place with participants sharing their experiences from all around the world.
So who’s “vulnerable”? That’s the key question. Is it just kids who don’t have the full awareness of how to use the Internet safely or is it the digitally illiterate who are not yet familiar with how to properly use the Internet? Dr. Vicky Nash, from Oxford University, one of the workshop speakers, gave us a more realistic, less stereo-typed view when she defined online vulnerability as mainly a behavioral and not a demographic characteristic. Interesting and unexpected! I even intervened in the workshop and supported the idea and spoke to the participants on how children in Qatar are very web savvy and that there’s always this misconception that kids are vulnerable users whereas they actually now how to crack and hack websites so it’s actually parents who are the most vulnerable.
So how is online vulnerability a behavioral characteristic? Groups identified the most vulnerable, as per Oxford studies, as primarily those who are cognitively or behaviorally unable to use the Internet safely. That could be any one of us – be it adults or teens or the elderly. Persons with learning disabilities are also vulnerable, since their cognitive abilities may not allow them to grasp how to best use certain websites or process certain information parts of a website.
The best way to understand online vulnerability is to look at that model prepared by researcher Sonia Livingstone, that was intensely discussed at the workshop. It’s a simple model that classifies online vulnerability into 3 Cs!
So basically, it’s what you do or what you read online that makes you or others vulnerable depending on how you act on that content or how you behave with others online. Content vulnerability is primarily commercial, aggressive or sexual content that has negative, biased, immoral or misleading values that manipulates vulnerable users (such as porn sites, deceptive ads,.etc.).
Contact vulnerability is basically any type of user interaction with others who may harm him/her either personally or informationally. How is that? Tracking websites that steals your personal information without prior consent is an example. Cyber stalking or bullying behaviors is definitely included as a form of vulnerability. Conduct is the most dangerous form of online vulnerability, where a person takes an active role in harming other vulnerable users for different psychological reasons, be it self-esteem or proving oneself. So, a person hacking a website just to show how web savvy he is to his friends is actually taking an active role by engaging in a behavior that exploits the vulnerability of others!
It’s these forms of online risks (or vulnerabilities) that really show that vulnerability is primarily behavioral. We could all be victims of content/conduct/contact vulnerabilities. It’s how well aware we are, and what we do that determines how safe we will be in cyber space. So perhaps you’d need to think twice before looking at children as the only vulnerable groups online