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Timor-Leste’s Digital Generation: Waiting for a Signal

February 22, 2023

By Heidi Arbuckle

A young generation of avid technology users is embracing the internet in Timor-Leste. With 74 percent of the population under 35 years old, and increasing access to cheap smartphones, mobile internet access is growing and transforming the lives of young Timorese. But mobile connectivity remains slow and expensive on this island nation, and Timorese pay more for their mobile data than any other country in Southeast Asia.

In 2022, the Asia Foundation’s Community Security and Justice program set out to better understand the online lives of young Timorese. The study engaged 24 Timorese 16 to 24 years of age from diverse social and geographic backgrounds in a week-long, moderated, online forum, along with research partners Oxfam in Timor-Leste and LoveFrankie. Participants were selected randomly with the assistance of local youth, disability, and LGBTQIA+ organizations. Four participants lived outside of the capital city, Dili. Defying Timor’s slow and fluctuating internet speeds, the participants used their daily strategies of switching SIM cards and going online at specific times to answer questions, respond to comments, and engage with one another in a secure online environment. The Foundation published the study report, Digital Youth in Timor-Leste, in September. This blog post captures some of its findings.

A young generation of avid technology users is embracing the internet in Timor-Leste. (Photo: Simão Cardoso Pereira)

The new influencers

The digital space has given rise to new kinds of social influencers, and Timor-Leste is no exception. Young people in the study cited YouTubers, vloggers, motivators, social activists, and the former state secretary for youth as people they most admire. Top priorities for these young, online Timorese are career and education opportunities, personal growth, the environment, and contributing to their communities.

YouTuber Juliana Marques Cabral, nicknamed “Cha-cha,” commands a huge following via her vlogs with tips about learning English, travel, and studying abroad. She currently has over 65,000 YouTube subscribers, equal to 10 percent of Timor’s internet users. Most striking about Cha-cha is that she represents a reimagined Timor-Leste—one that is young, female, mobile, and global.

Hard-won freedoms extend online

The Digital Youth in Timor-Leste study showed that young Timorese are aware of their digital rights and value the access to knowledge that the internet provides. These Timorese were proud that their young democracy ranks relatively high on global freedom indices. They are aware, however, that these freedoms are fragile, and they worry that if the government were to introduce internet restrictions it could compromise their access to information.

In 2021, a proposed cybercrime bill met with broad opposition from the media, civil society, and youth activists, who felt that the law’s provisions on defamation could be misused. Young people are aware that Timor-Leste needs cybercrime and data protection regulations, but they do not want them to curtail free speech online. They are also concerned about the uptick in negative content and behavior online. Young people define negative content as anything from oversharing (of one’s personal information) to harmful content such as misinformation and sexual harassment. The challenge, they say, is how to deal with the continual threat of sophisticated scams and online crimes.

Vigilant in the face of disruption

The disruptive effects of digital technologies have often given rise to new or intensified forms of abuse, and young Timorese identified girls, LGBTQIA+ people, and women in the public eye—such as the female candidates in the 2022 presidential elections—as the most vulnerable. They also worried that young people in martial arts groups, which at times are associated with gangs, are vulnerable to online provocations that heighten social rivalries. At the same time, they feel that the media often unfairly associates young people with violence and that social media exacerbates this.

Young people seek help and advice from their peers to protect themselves from online risks. They feel that digital literacy programs from government and development organizations are often outdated in their knowledge of technology. Young Timorese turn to their peers, they say, because their country lacks mechanisms to report online harms or fake news, and because global social media platforms are seen as unresponsive. When fake news has spread, it has been local journalists and civil society activists who have played a moderating role through fact-checking and verification.

Young people drive digital growth, but lack enabling conditions

Despite limited e-commerce capabilities in Timor-Leste, which is not yet set up for online financial transactions, young people are keen to develop local content industries. Facebook is the overwhelmingly dominant platform, and young people use it for education, volunteer work, social activism, and marketing their micro-businesses. Aside from Facebook, there is a lack of internet content in Tetun, the national language, and young people often get their information in English or Indonesian instead.

Access, data speed, and affordability are major issues for Timor-Leste’s small broadband market, which relies on mobile connectivity and expensive satellite connections. Successive governments have been taking steps to address these challenges. This includes plans to obtain high-speed internet through submarine fiber-optic connections, most recently from Australia, as well as preparing sector strategies such as Timor-Leste’s 2022–2032 national strategic plan for digital and ICT development. Currently, however, publicly available details on these plans do not spell out measures to increase access and affordability. Further, they do not specify how the needs of the majority stakeholders of the digital space—young Timorese—will be consulted, incorporated, or addressed.

Young people see the slow pace of Timor’s digital development as a generation-gap problem. This is not a new observation: a similar generation gap has been blamed for keeping young people out of politics and employment opportunities. The Digital Youth in Timor-Leste study shows that with their innovation and savvy, young people are imagining a new Timor-Leste that is global and connected. Accessible, affordable internet and policies to empower Timor-Leste’s large youth population need to be part of the country’s economic diversification strategy. To leave them out would be a missed opportunity.

Heidi Arbuckle is the team leader of the Community Security and Justice program for The Asia Foundation in Timor-Leste. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

The author would like to acknowledge the Digital Youth in Timor-Leste research team: Mike Wilson and Parinda Khongkhachan (Love Frankie), Annie Sloman and Zevonia Vieira Fernandes (Oxfam), and Januario Rangel Soares (The Asia Foundation).

Related locations: Timor-Leste

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