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SE Asia: Youth are Shaping Tomorrow’s Internet

In countries like Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia, young women and men are reimagining the digital world they’ll inherit. And they’re working at bringing those visions to life—including through the “YIGF” movement.

Since 2014, we’ve been supporting Southeast Asia’s (SEA) changemaker generation: digital natives mostly aged 18-25. They’re the ones leading the region’s explosive growth in Internet use. They’re well placed to champion digital resilience and citizenship—and better lives—for their countries. And many of the young people we’ve worked with are doing exactly that.

Case in point: budding Youth Internet Governance Forum (YIGF) initiatives in Vietnam and Myanmar—and soon, Cambodia. It’s just one way young champions are stepping up for a new generation of digital citizens. On the surface, it may not even sound like the most exciting one. But look closer: these YIGFers will build your faith in youth’s potential to build a better world.

YIGF: Elevating youth voicesYIGF logo

Youth Internet Governance Forums (YIGFs) are youth-driven counterparts to the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). That larger IGF is a UN-mandated platform that convenes myriad stakeholders to debate Internet policy issues. At IGF events, you’ll find academics and civil society leaders rubbing shoulders with political and tech-industry luminaries. What you won’t see in large numbers are young people—that most active and fastest-growing group of Internet users.

The YIGF movement was born out of that gap. It started with a youth side-event before the IGF 2007 conference in Rio de Janeiro. Since then, national YIGFs have sprouted in dozens of countries. Organized by youth, for youth, YIGFs are driving dialogue on issues like digital inclusion, online safety and freedom of expression. Many are taking their policy priorities to their national governments and, increasingly, global IGF events. This year’s IGF 2023 conference in Kyoto (October 8-12) will feature an official YIGF-inspired youth track focused on “cybersecurity and trust.”

It’s all very heartening. This is young people stepping up to shape the norms for the digital world they’re inheriting. So we jumped at the chance to help youth initiate YIGF movements in Vietnam, Myanmar and now Cambodia. The dream here is to see them build a sustainable vehicle to elevate young people’s voices in essential Internet policy debates.

YIGF movement takes root in VietnamYIGF Vietnam logo

In a developing country like Vietnam, cyberspace is a new vista for transformation. Internet use is growing fast here, and three-quarters of users are under 35. The national government the digital economy as a key driver of growth. And for Vietnamese youth to help shape the Internet platform itself is a very big deal.

For four-plus years now, that’s exactly what a group of young digital champions has been doing. In March 2019, alongside local NGO Vietnet-ICT, we hosted a roundtable in Hanoi for dozens of youth and digital stakeholders. It earned national television coverage and sowed seeds for a permanent YIGF Vietnam organizing committee.

YIGF Vietnam 2019: A young woman speaks from the floor

Getting things rolling in 2019.

That group has become a self-organizing powerhouse. Throughout 2020, they built new skills through workshops on leadership, digital citizenship, communications, fundraising and more. They used those new skills to deliver national youth-awareness campaigns on digital safety. And by November 2021, they were staging a first-ever standalone YIGF Vietnam event—and they’ve never looked back.

YIGF Vietnam 2021 was a watershed event. From 673 applicants, 103 young “ambassadors” were chosen to participate. Their live-streamed event reached more than half a million users. And before closing ceremonies, they’d agreed on detailed policy recommendations for their government (on personal data protection). In Vietnam’s political culture, this was a trailblazing contribution, its positive reception a tribute to their nuance. Instead of speaking as an interest group, they offered a roadmap that honoured all stakeholders—from state to industry to civil society. In fact, they’d baked that balance into the very structure of the conference, where experts mentored ambassadors to represent various stakeholders’ priorities in debates.

Today’s YIGF Vietnam is an institution. The core group is stronger than ever, with Vietnet-ICT serving a a neutral secretariat. Their 2022 conference matched the scale of the 2021 event (this time on digital safety and cybersecurity).  This September, YIGF Vietnam 2023 will explore “Internet governance in aspects of life.” And we continue to marvel at how much engaged young people can accomplish with support that’s delivered on their own terms.

Group photo of YIGF 2019 participants.

Where it started: participants at the first YIGF Vietnam roundtable in 2019.

Youth ambassadors and mentors at YIGF Vietnam 2022.

Where they’ve come: youth ambassadors and mentors at YIGF Vietnam 2022.

Moving forward in Myanmar and Cambodia

What’s better than witnessing progress that’s meaningful, locally-driven and sustainable? Maybe this one thing: seeing this kind of success inspire similar progress further afield.

In 2020, we started taking insight from the Vietnam team to Myanmar, where youth wanted to launch their own YIGF. Unfortunately, the February 2021 military coup meant we had to suspend our work there. To their enormous credit, however, our young partners kept working and even organized a small online YIGF event in 2022. They also joined regional YIGF and APNIC events, and are active with the NetMission Academy. Last month, one YIGF Myanmar team member published an article as part of NetMission’s first regional policy paper.

Good news: we recently re-engaged with the Myanmar youth to support capacity-building internships. They have demonstrated incredible resolve during a time of violence and political unrest. We’re incredibly proud to support their voices as they continue acting as digital champions for youth in their country. And we’ll have more to share in the months ahead.

Meanwhile, in Cambodia, our Chum Rum Digital team recently partnered with Open Data Cambodia to form their own YIGF youth committee. Already, recruitment is underway, with plans to spearhead a YIGF Cambodia national event in 2023. This will be part of Cambodia’a first-ever national IGF gathering. In short: youth will be at the national table, from day one. Updates to come!

Not just policy wonksImagery from the ClickClever digital-safety campaign in VietNam.

YIGF stalwarts are leading substantive policy debates on the safety, sustainability and future of their digital world. But nobody should mistake them for a group of disconnected policy wonks! Instead, these young women and men are deeply embedded in their communities, online and off, and they want to make a practical difference.

Before the first full YIGF Vietnam event (2021), committee members came together to deliver digital-safety awareness campaigns at a national level. For instance, the ClickClever campaign—featuring a digital-safety quiz app for iOS and Android—earned two million Facebook engagements. Video entries to a TikTok dance challenge averaged 13,000 views. And the buzz these campaigns created drove young people’s interest in the conference itself.

Logo for the Chong Hack digital safety brand in Vietnam.Vietnam’s YGIFers also helped build a national digital-safety brand: Chống Hack (“fight hacking”). We’d launched it in 2015, alongside Vietnet-ICT, to help youth protect themselves from digital harm. In 2019, the YIGFers stalwarts took over as lead content creators. By late 2021, they were connecting with youth so effectively that we handed over the brand entirely. Today, the digital safety guides on Chống Hack’s website have drawn more than a million views, and the group’s Facebook page continues to deliver alerts and how-tos to 187,000 followers.

Final thought: In all three countries, young people are reminding us that there are digital champions everywhere—with energy, savvy and dreams of elevating their generation. For us, recognizing them is a critical first step. The next one is to help them build capacity to move forward, on their own terms. Because that’s how sustainable progress happens.


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SEA ChangemakersSEA logo fosters digital resilience and citizenship among youth and civil society in three Southeast Asian countries: Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam. We work with local partners to support public outreach, digital safety training, and research and advocacy on the Internet landscape. [More]