If you think “Internet governance” can’t excite youth today, this group of Cambodians will surprise you. Last month, they staged their country’s first-ever Youth Internet Governance Forum conference. And for them, all of this is about chasing their generation’s dreams of a brighter future.
More than 200 young Cambodians gathered in Phnom Penh this September 23-24 to share visions for the digital space they’ll inherit. This was Cambodia’s first-ever national Youth Internet Governance Forum conference. And the agenda’s wide sweep very much reflected the energy of net-savvy youth wanting to leave no issue untouched at this first event.
Some context: Youth Internet Governance Forums (YIGFs) shadow the global Internet Governance Forum (IGF). The IGF is the UN-mandated and very adult platform that convenes stakeholders from across sectors and continents to shape Internet policy. With aims of empowering younger voices—the world’s dominant Internet users—national YIGFs have now formed in more than 30 countries. And in some of Southeast Asia’s tougher political environments, these YIGFs are becoming vital hubs for forward-thinking youth.
That’s certainly true in Cambodia. A YIGF steering committee formed here less than a year ago, with help from two local partners: Open Development Cambodia and Chumrum Digital. (That’s the digital-safety outreach team we’ve incubated since 2020). As with the YIGF groups we helped kickstart in Vietnam and Myanmar, this was a competitive process. After rising from a pool of 200+ applicants, 24 founding members dove this year into training sessions and internships in digital safety and Internet policy.
Timing is everything. This year, Cambodia’s government released its new 25-year Pentagonal Strategy for national development. Its five key priorities include “building the digital economy and society.” For a new generation of digital natives, meeting their government on that ground is a real opportunity to shape their own future. And that’s exactly what they are doing. In a recent book that we co-sponsored, The World We Want, 18 young people explore positive paths for Cambodia’s progress, often with a digital dimension. They are essentially inviting readers to look beyond legacies of conflict and genocide—and to instead see the agency, talent and ingenuity that’s bristling in their rising generation.
The YIGF Cambodia team embodies those qualities. The very existence of last month’s event drives that home: In a matter of months, this group turned an idea into a movement-starting conference in the nation’s capital.
YIGF Cambodia 2023: Groundbreaking conference
The two-day event itself took place September 23-24 at the Cambodia Academy of Digital Technology (CADT) in Phnom Penh. It convened more than 200 youth delegates and 36 guest speakers from eight countries. The theme: Digital Empowerment: Ensuring Access, Safety, and Opportunities for All. The national government telegraphed its approval through opening remarks from H.E. Sun Rapid, Undersecretary of State for the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications.
Workshops and panels brought delegates together with tech experts and national policy makers. Some of the livelier discussions explored governance issues with AI; balancing digital rights and responsibilities; and protecting people’s privacy online. As the government prioritizes expanding connectivity, delegates underlined to need for affordability—to ensure accessibility in both rural and urban areas. Others focused on the need to protect freedom of expression, as a key to maturing as a global digital leader.
Along the way, Chumrum Digital delivered practical digital-safety clinics. And per YIGF tradition, Day 2 featured an extensive role-play, where delegates represented various sectors in a policy debate. Media coverage focused on concerns about Cambodia’s proposed data protection law. Panellists had identified gaps that could lead to misuse of personal data—including health data, political opinions, religious beliefs and biometric data.
For the Chumrum team, this first conference’s big outcome was all about the big picture. They say participants’ engagement was extensive and personal. They were struck by the sheer enthusiasm for something as complex and procedural as Internet governance. But this probably shouldn’t surprise us. If building that “world we want” falls to this new generation, then the shape of their digital landscape is critical.
Looking ahead, Open Development Cambodia has committed to continue hosting YIGF Cambodia conferences, next year and beyond. The youth organizing committee is already looking at ways to expand participation, including by inviting delegates from more provinces. Long before that: 11 of them will present event outcomes at this month’s global IGF 2023 conference in Kyoto, Japan. And we can expect even more from this group on the road ahead.
Heard @ YIGF Cambodia 2023
This event is truly a valuable experience for individuals from diverse backgrounds … I had the privilege of engaging closely with government officials and expressing my concerns regarding the crucial realm of digital governance. The captivating seminar on AI and digital security greatly expanded my knowledge and deepened my understanding of this rapidly evolving field. —Srey Nop, 2nd year student, National University of Fine Art
The value of this event in transferring vital knowledge about Cambodia's digital landscape cannot be overstated … I hope this becomes an annual tradition, allowing youth from far and wide to actively participate, even virtually, and benefit from the wealth of insights and opportunities it offers. Let's embrace the power of technology to connect and empower the youth of Cambodia! —Marina, IT student, Royal University of Phnom Penh
It's remarkable how this event has expanded my knowledge and deepened my understanding of cybersecurity in our country. The inclusive nature … bringing together multiple stakeholders from both within and beyond Cambodia … fostering collaboration and collective progress in safeguarding our digital landscape… I am genuinely grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this…! —Conference participant (name withheld)
“Open Development Cambodia is thrilled to announce its commitment to organizing this remarkable event annually. The tremendous interest expressed by youth is a testament to the impact and transformative experience that the YIGF offers. Together, we can harness the power of youth engagement and collaboration to drive positive change and build an inclusive and responsible digital ecosystem in Cambodia." —Haingkheang Sok, Open Development Cambodia
Our SEA Changemakers program 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]