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Helping to protect people in digital spaces

Oak Foundation Denmark / Partner story

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The Digital Responsibility Association aims to promote safe and responsible digital practices by being a knowledge centre for parties across various disciplines. The need for this is great: every fourth Dane has either been exposed to digital violations themselves or knows someone who has. There are many consequences, not only for individual citizens, but also for society as a whole.

Do you remember when we used to send a fax when a message had to arrive quickly? Or when we patiently waited to finish our camera’s roll of film before having the images developed? It’s relatively few years ago, but already it seems dizzyingly distant. The constant technological developments that came in the wake of digitalisation have hit us all at 120 kilometres an hour. And with those developments, a series of consequences have followed.

Every tenth Dane has personally been subjected to degrading, hateful or harassing comments or extortion online. This past year with Corona has certainly not made it any better. Our online presence has exploded, increasing the market for illegal material, including, for example, file sharing of intimate images. At the same time, an extremely sharp tone of debate has developed on social media, and more and more ordinary people are getting into trouble while navigating the Internet.

Luckily, there is also positive news. As a knowledge centre, The Digital Responsibility Association collects and disseminates information about digital violations and digital violence and works to stimulate dialogue and influence on a political level. On top of this, the association will bring proposals for shared solutions for improved digital responsibility together with 19 other member organisations. These include The Save the Children Fund, The Danish Crime Prevention Council, and the Children’s Rights National Association.

“In 2020 we took a decisive organisational step forward. Oak Foundation Denmark saw that this problem deserved greater attention. With the grant from the foundation, we can begin to address urgent demands, including better protection for victims, and place greater pressure on tech companies to take responsibility,” says Deputy Chairman of Digital Responsibility, Ask Hesby Krogh.

The need for a professional knowledge centre

The Digital Responsibility Association will celebrate its five-year anniversary in January 2022. But the first cases of illegal file-sharing in Denmark date back to 2015. The attitude from legal authorities at the time was that it would be difficult to do anything about it.

“Can that really be it?” thought the lawyer Miriam Michaelsen, who went on to found the Digital Responsibility Association. She began accepting digital infringement cases, but lacked a place to find information on the scale, complexity and consequences of the topic.

The idea and the need for a knowledge centre was born. And since then it has only gone one way: forward and with extreme haste.

With the much-discussed and year-long “Umbrella Case” of 2018, in which over 1,000 people were charged with illegal image sharing, it became clear that Denmark faced a big problem. But when the case was closed, the general response was that “now everything is in order”. However, that was far from the truth.

From its start as a small, volunteer organisation with networking groups in law, tech and victim counselling, the Digital Responsibility Association now consists of a workforce that is well on its way to professional status. Since 2017, the association has set as its goal to achieve greater knowledge within the field of digital responsibility, both to clarify the debate, strengthen the field and help victims who are exposed to abuse.

But what is digital violence? And how big is the problem?

“Digital harassment is violence – digital violence – because it can have just as many consequences for victims as physical or psychological violence. We consider and define it as a form of violence in line with other forms,” says Ask Hesby Krogh.

“Digital violence is difficult to escape,” he continues. “You can be contacted all day and night. You can be blackmailed and harassed. You never know when you might receive the next message. The Internet never sleeps, and we know that victims of digital violence suffer from depression, anxiety and PTSD, among other things. You are constantly on high alert.”

Krogh explains how we can feel constricted in our private lives, self-censoring ourselves or not feeling secure in our own home. We can even change our behaviour out of fear that our intimate conversations or pictures may end up in the wrong hands.

“Digital violence is not just about the victims, but about society as a whole, which has a legal and moral obligation to help. If you are the victim of a traffic accident, you will receive emergency help and support. The same should apply here. That is why we are actively working to influence politics,” says Ask Hesby Krogh.

One of the areas that the Digital Responsibility association has identified as a possible solution is a change to the law that will require the big tech companies that profit from our privacy to take responsibility to better protect their users. In general, with the laws as they are today, companies cannot be held responsible. The association aims to change that, as companies play an important role both in prevention and in helping with police investigations.

Together with its member organisations, in 2019 the Digital Responsibility Association proposed new legislation for regulating social media which would require tech companies to remove illegal content. The government set up working groups, and the plan is that a new bill will be presented before the summer.

“We are very excited to see if the government chooses our proposal. It would be a huge victory. Fighting this problem is not just about increasing the level of punishment. We do not believe that punishment alone will solve this issue. There is, however, an acute need for better protection for victims.”

Today, everything indicates that booming technological advances only make the existence of and professional focus on digital responsibility even more relevant. The introduction of “deep fake” videos alone (the manipulation of existing video and audio to depict false, but very realistic scenarios) are a bombshell in the field that greatly increases the problem of digital violence.

So where will the Digital Responsibility Association be 5 or 10 years in the future?

“By that time, we will have undergone a process of professionalisation together with our member organisations and come up with a number of concrete, political solutions. Our ambition is to make our proposals a reality so that victims of digital violence are better protected and to reach out to the rest of the Commonwealth. Then hopefully we will see two new trends: a decrease in the number of victims of digital violence, and an increase in the number of reports. That is our hope.”

This grant falls under Oak Foundation Denmark, which believes that communities need to work for everyone, and that roadmaps to opportunity and systems that protect people are clear and available for all. You can find out more about the programme here and read more about Digital Rsonsibility Association here.

Fact box:

  • 24 per cent of Danes either know someone who has or have themselves been exposed to digital violations
  • 71 per cent have become more cautious about sharing information online within their close network
  • 28 per cent refrain from sharing images and/or political views online within their close networks for fear of abuse

Source: Epinion for Digital Responsibility, November 2020.