Thanks to phones, tablets, Wi-fi and data, there is rarely a time when we aren’t connected to the internet. Much of our lives are spent online, and the rest, we share online later.
While we’re busy scrolling and posting, we probably aren’t thinking about how the internet can affect individuals, communities, or even pose a threat to national safety.
Last December, two Hong Kong ESF students boarded a plane to Geneva, Switzerland. They headed to the United Nations Office to attend an international conference centred on one main question: how can we manage the internet?
Island School’s Rohan Daswani and South Island School’s Shannon Hui were selected to attend the United Nations Internet Governance Forum (IGF) after submitting a proposal for the pre-event training programme organised by ESF in November.
The pair had the opportunity to talk with delegates from governments, companies and non-governmental organisations – and they recently caught up with Young Post to share their experiences.
Rohan learned that the speed and ease of communication via the Internet makes it challenging to moderate.
“I realised that governments are increasingly targeting voice communication and messaging apps such as Whatsapp and Telegram, because they are able to spread information and connect users quickly and securely,” said the 16-year-old. “[This] makes it more difficult for authorities to control the information landscape or conduct surveillance.”
Rohan spoke at the UN meeting about internet security. When drafting his speech, he made sure to consider the different viewpoints regarding the censorship and safety of social media platforms and communication apps. He knew it was important to take into account the concerns of every representative in the room.
“You can’t just quickly make a decision [based on] your own opinion,” he said. “Everyone has their own opinion, and you have to come to a creative conclusion which will work with all the stakeholders involved.”
Yet what surprised him most during the conference was the lack of internet literacy worldwide.
“After coming back I researched this, and I found that actually there are quite a lot of people in Hong Kong – a surprising amount, actually, – who do not have access to the internet or do not know how to use it,” he observed.
But what shocked Rohan wasn’t news to Shannon, whose proposal revolved around the digital divide in Hong Kong – in particular, how it correlates with the wealth divide.
“[The digital gap] is something that not only limited to internet-related content; it reveals something much greater about our social issues,” the 18-year-old said. “The poverty cycle restricts [people]’s ability to achieve beyond their potential, and grow beyond [their] circumstances,” the 18-year-old said.
Elizabeth Nyamayaro, the woman behind the United Nations' HeForShe campaign, says gender inequality isn't about men vs women
One statistic she learned from the IGF that backs up her own outlook was that seven billion people around the world still lack access to the internet, despite the many strategies implemented to alleviate the situation.
Shannon also discovered how difficult policymaking processes can be, as well as the struggles of sustaining internet literacy, as related projects are often funded by charity or for altruistic purposes.
In spite of the immense challenges, Shannon remains optimistic. She believes the best way to boost internet literacy among disadvantaged groups in Hong Kong is a bottom-up approach, starting with individuals and small communities.
“From listening to the ideas [in IGF], I hope ... I [can] bring these global strategies back to my local community and change the social landscape in my own way,” she said.