Panel discussion: Ethics & Digital Rights

Year of production: 2023

With the internet increasingly the way most people – especially young people – access key services, but also communicate and socialise, it brings into sharp focus the question of ethics and what people’s rights online consist of. And furthermore, if they are aware of these rights and able to exercise them. These are questions that the youth sector must deal with in its day-to-day work and one which policy and practice should constantly address. 


What are digital rights?

When we talk about digital rights, first of all we are referring to human rights (the ones provided for in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights) that everyone should enjoy in the offline world, simply transferred to the digital sphere.  As the UN puts it:  “human rights apply both online and offline”. The European Guide on human rights for internet users, outlines that human rights must be respected and protected in the digital sphere. In addition to basic human rights, such as the right to education, to privacy, to be free from discrimination etc. new behaviours such as the right to access the internet itself is increasingly being seen as an essential human right too.  


What do digital rights mean in practice?

In practice, digital rights should cover the basics – such as – do people have access to the equipment and a decent internet connection, so that they can get online and access the kinds of services that are essential for everyday life? But it also goes much further to perhaps more “intangible”, less obvious, risks and concerns, such as algorithms and artificial intelligence, privacy, surveillance and security.

For example, everything we do, see and communicate online is being tracked and observed. In the offline world, people would probably be shocked if there was a similar level of surveillance of young people – e.g. doing their shopping, but online this happens unchecked with users often unaware. There are plenty of simple practical tips and tricks that young people can employ to improve their privacy online, just by changing their browsing settings, for example.

Algorithms (on social media these are a way that the technology sorts posts in a users’ feed based on relevancy instead of publishing time) play an important role in what we see online; with one person’s social media feed, for example, appearing completely different to a friend’s. Certain news items are given prominence, for example, not because they are necessarily the top of the day’s news agenda, but because the individual has expressed interest online in that topic. Such algorithms strengthen the “echo chamber” effect of social media and they risk exaggerating and reinforcing discrimination and bias. For example, search engine algorithms have been shown to discriminate against certain ethnic groups. 

There is a strong link between what people see online and their emotions. If a young person’s social media feeds are filled with negative news items, their so-called “doom scrolling”, clearly risks having a knock-on negative impact on their mental health. 

The risk at a personal level to mental health is of course extremely worrying. On a societal level, misinformation and fake news, if unquestioned and left to spread online unchecked, risks threatening democracy itself. But if young people are prepared – through for example, media literacy education – then they will be more aware of what the algorithms are doing and the negative impact, both at the individual and societal level, can be reduced.  


Do young people know and do they care? 

There are various blocks to improving young people’s access to their digital rights. Firstly, whilst young people are certainly very competent online users, there is a significant digital skills gap when it comes to ethics and rights and their understanding of them and how to exercise them. Another issue, on top of skills, is perception: young people see their online lives in a different way to older generations. The digital sphere is such an essential part of day-to-day life, so intertwined with their offline experiences that young people probably do not see the same risks in the online world that older people might. There is therefore work to be done on increasing awareness of the risks that exist online and in relation to rights. 

What can be done?

Digital rights and digital ethics is one of the few areas where policy is ahead of practice – with many frameworks, policies and guidance already in place. Youth workers certainly have a role in raising awareness among young people of their digital rights and some of the ethical issues that arise online. But there is a question over the capacity of the youth field to boost digital skills; youth workers also need to be educated on encouraging digital rights in practice. 

Some examples of how youth work, through e.g. practical sessions and role play, could support better digital skills in relation to rights, among young people:

  • Spotting “ fake news” and misinformation
  • Critical skills – like understanding social media algorithms 
  • Understanding what the is product of “free services”, such as social media channels 
  • Getting to grips with privacy – e.g., what are cookies? 
  • Being a responsible digital citizen – interrogating what you share
  • Knowing when to report something 


Panel:  Ethics and Digital Rights  

This was the fifth of six panel sessions hosted by SALTO Participation & Information Resource Centre (SALTO PI) and SALTO Inclusion and Diversity Resource Centre (SALTO I&D) on Inclusive & Participatory Digital Transformation.


The event featured:

  • Maryna Bykova, Project Manager and a Vice-Chairwoman at CGE Erfurt e.V. and Member of the European Digital Education Hub.
  • Charline d’Oultremont, Consultant for UNESCO’s Communications and Information Sector, Digital Innovation and Transformation Section, where she focuses on the AI and the Rule of Law
  • Andreas Karsten, works at Youth Policy Labs, the global think tank hosting, and coordinates the transnational research activities of RAY, the self-governed network on the research-based analysis of the European youth programmes


Photo of Sarah Farndale
Sarah Farndale

Sarah is a communications specialist with 15 years' experience working in-house for a wide range of organisations and institutions, from international NGOs to EU associations and institutions. More recently, she has been advising clients as a freelance communications consultant - based in Brussels - working with organisations on enhancing their communications.