Entrepreneurs like Zuckerberg. Content creators like PewDiePie. Philanthropists like Bill Gates. Casual users like you and me. All individuals alike, what began as a transnational infrastructure for merely communication and commerce has evolved into a uniquely universal realm that transcends all – the Internet. Its success stems from the way it was built and able to grow into the open platform for innovation it is today. It is this openness that defined the Internet from the outset and allowed it to bring immense change in the ways we think.
Today, the Internet has become the gateway to ‘permissionless innovation’, where anyone can create and offer a service, namely Jeff Bezos who started Amazon.com in a garage with just his savings; or Facebook and Google, both of which were created by students. Similarly, websites, blogs, videos, tweets…can all be broadcast and accessed by anyone through this largest mass medium imaginable. For every single person involved in our cyberspace, the possibilities are endless.
Beyond our universe of ever-changing YouTube trends, often generational memes (except for Rick-Rolling, which both my mother and I still find incredibly iconic) and whatnot, lies the notion of Internet Governance: the development of policies and mechanisms which shape the use and evolution of the Internet.
Internet Governance is not referred to as Government – the term Governance implies a polycentric, less hierarchic order, that requires mutual agreement amongst every participant, whether it be service providers, users, governments or any other party. With respect to its history, many have realized that the Internet, unlike the traditional territorial jurisdiction, cannot be regulated in a top-down manner – rather, its governance should be based on processes that are inclusive and driven by consensus. Much emphasis was placed upon the critical need to create clear and simple ways for everyone, regardless of background, to understand and be part of how the internet is run. This, called the ‘multi-stakeholder approach’, suggests that everyone who has a stake in the future of the Internet ought to have a voice in how it is run and has played a crucial role in the evolution of Internet Governance since.
A prime example of the multi-stakeholder model in action is the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). First established by the United Nations Secretariat-General in 2006, an annual event which brings together over 2,000 attendees from all around the world: from private sectors to governments, civil societies to technical and academic communities, to discuss contemporary issues and policies concerning our cyberspace. Having participated in this year’s Hong Kong Youth Internet Governance Forum (HKyIGF), I was fortunate enough to be selected as a representative to participate at the IGF in November. Having my voice heard at an international conference was truly a dream turned into reality – it was a phenomenal experience, and here’s why.
A question that the IGF aims to address is: in an ever-changing digital era, how do digital convergence and the global nature of the Internet pose new issues in public policy and regulation? Even more so, how do they challenge old institutions and previous policy paradigms?
Inevitably, there are many aspects that could be elaborated upon, but as an avid human rights advocate, my focus throughout the three-day conference was the digital rights of refugees. A refugee doesn’t choose to be a refugee – by definition, they’re forcibly displaced. As the UNHCR writes, “They often have had to flee with little more than the clothes on their back, leaving behind homes, possessions, and loved ones.” As we move into the digital era, digital transformation is finally reaching communities who were, until recently, off the grid in the corners of the planet. There’s no denying that the volunteer network is expanding at a consistent rate. Perhaps refugees are having an easier time trying to make a living, thanks to new opportunities that the internet brings – but that could just be the tip of the iceberg. I struggled to wrap my head around the fact that even today, most refugees spend two-thirds of their disposable income on the sole purpose of connectivity. It seems that most governments refuse to recognize digital rights as a priority for alleviating the refugee crisis, yet a recent report by the UNHCR found that internet access has become “as vital to them as food, water or shelter”. Clearly, information technology plays a pivotal role in communicating critical information to refugees, helping families stay connected despite having gone through the toughest times, and providing the necessary tools for these individuals to start anew in another part of the world.
Fortunately, it seems that things are looking up – many stakeholders are actively involved in bringing change for the better. Speaker Jean Guo’s initiative Konexio aims to train the digital skills and literacy of refugees, and for those who obtain asylum – opportunities for professional integration. Google has also been working on numerous projects since 2015, such as low-bandwidth maps, a ‘people finder’, Google Translate, and the provision of educational resources for refugees with accreditation of the education they’ve obtained, all of which have already provided support for over 800,000 refugees.
Even for a secondary school student like myself, there is always something I can do to contribute. In collaboration with Refugee Union Hong Kong, the student-led advocacy group I’m part of, Justice Leaders’ Council, is currently in the process of solidifying an educational campaign that includes weekly lessons, in which our volunteers teach refugee children in Hong Kong basic areas of knowledge, such as but not limited to Cantonese, English, and Arts, for them to better integrate into society. I realized that teaching them digital skills such as coding could also be incorporated into the curriculum.
At the end of these workshops I attended, I was delighted to hear that the hosts and participating stakeholders were extremely committed to taking action – for example, one of the workshops would have a report written to the African Union and presented to decision-makers of the continent. This essential dialogue certainly calls for a change in international policies and legal frameworks and left all of us with an emphasis on the need to mainstream digital rights for refugees.
Another highlight of the conference was DotAsia’s own Workshop, “Empowering Change with Data: Measuring Youth Digital Mobility”, which I had the honor of being a panelist for, alongside Angel, my fellow representative from HKyIGF. The aim of DotAsia’s Youth Mobility Index (YMI) is to better support young Asians who are setting out to change the world. Nowadays, rather than tangible goods, people are more invested in obtaining life experiences such as studying or working abroad…even experiences like mine at the IGF all make up what we call ‘youth mobility’. YMI details just that kind of information and hopes to provide a robust set of tools to measure, understand and cultivate mobility among youth, and to enhance regional collaborations across the continent. During the session, we discussed the importance of data: Wathagi Ndungu, Vice President of Digital Grassroots, pointed out that data can support advocacy and campaigns for change by telling stories, and I added onto her point, “With data, we are able to deduce patterns in terms of how we, as humans, behave.” I believe one distinguishing characteristic of today’s youth is that we aren’t afraid, and in fact, we embrace change – having mechanisms like the YMI in place would enable youngsters to go beyond their comfort zone and venture into new opportunities, to broaden their horizons and pursue their passions.
Being just 16, I might’ve been one of the youngest participants at this year’s IGF – but in no way should this stop someone like myself from having my voice heard. Active participation at the IGF was my biggest goal, and in retrospect, I believe I fulfilled it. Adults are often influenced by an inherent bias which deems us, as teenagers, less ‘credible’ or ‘knowledgable’, citing inexperience as the largest deciding factor. Whether or not those prejudices are true, it is important that we, as part of a multi-stakeholder collective, listen to what each person has to say, no matter their background, gender, age, sexual orientation, etc. It was, undeniably, a bit disheartening to witness an audience member leave the room just five minutes into the session, seeing that the panel included mostly youngsters. Even so, hearing phrases such as “I totally agree with what you said up there,” or, “that was a really good question you raised” – the kind of resonation from meeting other like-minded individuals, passionate about the same areas as you are – was absolutely rewarding and motivating. I loved that for the most part, actively engaging in conversations allowed my voice to be heard and appreciated by the wider community, and I strive to continue to do so, whether it be in or outside of Hong Kong.
Everything about this experience, from the HKyIGF Boot Camp in July till now, has exceeded my expectations. Needless to say, being able to set foot at the UNESCO and speak for Asia’s Youth on Internet Governance Issues has been a real honour! Though I’m not exactly sure what lies ahead, I believe this shouldn’t mark the end of my internet governance journey – I’m currently writing for my school magazine about the IGF, and am also in the process of editing a short film about the trip. I’m still thinking of more ways to raise awareness about the initiative within my community and beyond…nonetheless, here’s to a new chapter!
About the writer
Faith Lee, HKyIGF 2018 Fellow
Year 12, Chinese International School