Creating Technology for Social Change

Codesign and intersectionality to revitalize digital literacy

Youth and privacy in the Americas: eQuality Project, Canada

How do youth allies promote young people’s critical thinking on privacy, in informal learning contexts in the Americas? This blog post is part of a series showcasing the work of different organizations at the intersection of youth development, digital rights, and online safety.

Quick facts

Who: Valerie Steeves and Jane Bailey from eQuality Project at the University of Ottawa

What: Research, policy, school and community resources

Mission/vision: To inform digital economy policies, especially privacy, and reinvigorate the cyberbullying debate by identifying evidence-based policies that promote healthy relationships and respect for equality online.

Where: Canada

Since: 2014

Years of operation (as of February 2018): 4

Works in the fields of: Defense of the right to privacy, equality

Post summary: eQuality Project carries out participatory research to promote healthy relationships and respect for equality online. Their collaborations with youth and community organizations explore new and rights-based approaches to digital literacy.

Highlight quote from the interview:

More resources: eQuality Project website


Valerie Steeves and Jane Bailey have a long history of working with public interest groups, particularly in the field of feminist advocacy. In 2006, they started working together on eGirls, a research project that explored the relationship between gender, privacy, and equality in online social networking. They recall that “every time [they] made a presentation, someone came up saying, ‘I have the same problem, let’s do work together!’.” The hunger among people who worked with kids for new approaches to digital literacy pushed them to start The eQuality Project at the University of Ottawa, where they are full professors in the departments of Criminology and Common Law.

The eQuality Project is a “partnership to inform digital economy policies, especially privacy, and reinvigorate the cyberbullying debate by identifying evidence-based policies that promote healthy relationships and respect for equality online.” And, whereas I had decided to focus all my research efforts on non-academic groups for this project, eQuality’s commitment to participatory and intersectional methodologies was visible in every single privacy-related project showcased on their website. After being referred by Lex Gill, I realized that Valerie’s research had surfaced many times as I did the literature reviews for my research and that Jane teaches a law course about cyberfeminism. It became obvious that I had to speak with them, and I am grateful for the time they took to share their knowledge with me. 

The eQuality Project’s research on youth and privacy covers teens’ decisions about photographs on social media, their perspectives on defamation, Google data, and a participatory research project on disconnection. They also have research and policy projects on the internet of toys, the networked classroom, algorithmic discrimination, and cyberviolence.  

As their name suggests, The eQuality Project works under the frame of the promotion of equality. Talk about equality surfaces quickly in conversation with youth, without the term needing to be even brought up by the researchers. “You won’t get very far if you talk specifically about equality. Sometimes they know what adults want to hear. But other times if you ask them how their life is they bring up issues of inequality. Gender, race, sexuality. So I think these are actually the issues that they think are important to them.”

For Jane, the relationship between privacy and equality has been more problematic than some would grant. “Because of my background, I have a feminist perspective. And, from a theoretical standpoint, I have a lot of questions about privacy, and whether it is beneficial to groups like women, or if it only privatizes the wrongs done to them. And being in the field and talking to young people about what is happening in their lives, the connections between privacy and inequality are clear to me all the time.”

 “Corporations, adults, other institutions are doing things that are inconsistent with kids’ rights and make it clear that privacy and equality are connected. Kids’ experiences prove that. If you’re not out and you can’t control your audiences, your capacity to use social media sites is controlled by platforms. In terms of feminist history, it’s all very familiar. Stupid user mantra, victim-blaming. If you look at how free speech is exercised in networked spaces, it’s gendered, racialized: a cacophony to push them out.”  

Jane also speaks of how these inequalities have recently surfaced in a judicial discussion about youth and privacy in Canada. “A case recently came before the Supreme Court [highlighting the tension between] privacy and equality. It involves a teacher that used a pen camera to take photos of students’ breasts; the Court had ruled that they had no expectation of privacy. I acted as counsel for our partner CIPPIC, which intervened in the case.  Along with another intervenor called LEAF, we tried to drive home to the Court that this is not just a privacy issue, but an equality issue, and that the finding that these students had no expectation of privacy has grave implications for their equality. If girls have to go to school where their bodily integrity is not protected from the use of pen cameras by their teachers, they are not standing on an equal footing with boys who are less likely to be targeted by this kind of activity.”  

Just as all things related to equality bubble up immediately when they start conversations with youth, “within ten minutes of conversation, all things privacy, drama, get brought up. They talk about the constraints they’re facing: spying, creeping. ‘My parents are spying on me’, ‘they ask my cousin to creep on me to see what I’m doing’. ‘Old men are spying on me on Instagram, and that’s creepy.’ We draw on our research but we talk with the words they’re experiencing.” 

So what do they do with this youth desire to talk about the violations of privacy that they perceive, and to protect their privacy in ways that corporations have failed to understand? They create opportunities for expression and collaboration. Codesign is a core element of their work best exemplified by their campaign called #DisconnectionChallenge, which began when eight teenagers contacted Valerie to explore “the impact of their own media use on their sense of connection to themselves, to others and to nature.”  

“They wanted to think about their own relationship with technology, so they did participatory action research, and they came up with the idea of media diary for a week. What came out of that project was that they were so excited about their own experiences that they wanted to challenge other kids on this. #DisconnectionChallenge got lots of press, and adults around them took them seriously. Since then, we’ve heard from a lot of teachers using it in their classrooms. There is value in having youth create materials for others in a way that speaks to them. Adults tend to talk about them and tell them what the problems are. And there is a gap, seen in our research, about what adults think the problems are and what youth’s problems actually are.” 

What do youth see as their problems? eQuality research on defamation involving Canadian youth shows, for example, that they see “individual, corporate and government intrusions on privacy as harms in the online context, most of which they felt were unfair, but many of which they felt they had little choice but to accept” (Bailey and Steeves, 2017, 80). Youth who participated in interviews spoke of non-consensual image sharing incidents in their circles, corporate tracking, and government surveillance of social media as problems that they had to accept—all of which challenges adult views of youth as uninterested in topics of privacy, or ignorant about the consequences of personal data misuse.


Still from the #DisconnectionChallenge video, made by eight teenagers who reflected on their 7-day social media fast.


The eQuality Project further creates opportunities for youth participation in other institutional dimensions: they have a youth advisory board. “In talking with young people about privacy, inequality and their lived experience, we recognize the importance of developing our work in ways that are consistent with them. We’ve been lucky to have a number of young people from across Canada with a wide variety of interests, areas of expertise.” They present an excellent rationale for this advisory board in their published guiding intentions, which were inspired by the practice of two of their partners, the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women and the Youth Services Bureau: youth engagement is not a program, one person cannot represent many, and debate is a learning tool.

One of the main areas of work in The eQuality Project in Canada is policy outreach and interventions. “Working closely with external project partners, we will also inform Federal, Provincial, and Territorial policy through our policy and community partners, who are looking for innovative ways to advance policy beyond the “zero-tolerance” approach, and to actively encourage and promote healthy online environments and respect for diversity and equality online.”

Some of their most recent policy recommendations on privacy were published in MediaSmarts’ Young Canadians in a Wired World, written by Valerie Steeves. One of the key recommendations is the creation of anonymous and non-commercial spaces where youth can interact without constant adult monitoring, especially in educational settings. This is important as the current model based on data collection and commodification “is out of keeping with the nuanced ways in which young people seek both privacy and publicity online, and ignores the social norms they have developed to negotiate a comfortable level of both” (Steeves, 2015).  

Their work also intends to influence the policies and curriculum in Canadian schools, seeing how, as recently as five years ago, there was excitement among school boards when Google announced they would give them free email services. Educational approaches to privacy often fall under the umbrella of digital literacy and digital citizenship. Jane and Valerie see digital literacy work as “rooted in citizenship, as opposed to a list of rules to ensure you behave well.” They point to high school students’ response to gun violence incidents in the United States and Canada in 2018, an instance where they are behaving as citizens. “It’s transgressive work if you do it well”; they ultimately do their research in academia, rather than in the industry, “because [they] want to create a space where kids can transgress and resist.”

As I interviewed different organizations in the field, one of my guiding questions was what they make of the similarity between privacy education that tells kids not to do something and telling women not to wear miniskirts if they do not want to be subjected to sexual violence. With Jane and Valerie’s feminist perspectives and expertise in privacy issues, our discussion on privacy messaging left me with one of the most eloquent articulations of the need to address the socio-technical structures that undermine our right to privacy:

“It should not be about what to do or not do, but about their rights, and how corporations are violating them. We teach kids to look both ways before they cross the street, but we also have laws that protect them from being hit or run over by a car. In technology, it’s never been a rounded focus. Who are the leading players violating kids’ rights? The big players have had control over the so-called “education agenda” of these issues, shifting the focus back onto the user, back onto the kid. I’m not opposed to teaching kids to look both ways, because some people might not stop at a stop sign; but if it were the only thing we did as a society to address it, I would be annoyed. And that’s what we have done with technology. This myopic view of education is part of what we are trying to change.”

Jane and Valerie point to the Convention on the Rights of the Child as one of the guiding principles of their work, as it allows us to see kids as rights holders, rather than as problems that need to be fixed. They have rights of access to information, of access to cultural products, of access to media, and there is a fruitful interaction between all their rights.

Funding for projects like The eQuality Project creates an important opportunity for bringing academic researchers together with organizations in this field to support them in serving diverse communities, “rather than having to take an off-the-shelf technology product not geared for the members of the community they serve.”

The eQuality Project at the University of Ottawa’s consideration of equality at the center of their research and advocacy on youth and privacy is one of the most robust programmatic commitments to intersectionality I found in this research project, especially as it is accompanied by work that is participatory on different layers. I think that their commitment sets a standard for all organizations in the youth and online privacy field in the Americas (and, frankly, in other regions), and I know that I am inspired to emulate their steps.

You can read more about the eQuality Project on their very informative website that features their research, advocacy and all you need to know about their youth advisory board.