Marching on beyond QWERTY – Interview with Keyboard Frontline

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Don’t let the name fool you, our fifth social media influencer, Keyboard Frontline, is a group that will not simply hide behind the keyboard.

Our fifth social media influencer interview is a departure from our past four. Unlike the individuals who emerged as popular commentators on general politics masked behind their pseudonyms and/or avatars, Keyboard Frontline is a group of individuals that banded together against one single cause, and have exerted their influence on and off line.

Founded in 2011, Keyboard Frontline (KBFL) was formed by a group of netizens in reaction to the proposed Copyright (Amendment) Bill 2011. The bill was dubbed “Internet Article 23” because of fears it would limit freedom of speech through criminalising derivative works (a work that is based on or derived from existing works; sometimes referred to as ‘re-creation’).

Through their actions on the streets and behind the keyboard, the group helped spark the public backlash that led to the law’s temporary shelving in 2012. Since then the bill has returned in the form of Copyright (Amendment) Bill 2014 with added exemptions to soothe the anger on the internet. The battle to guarantee the right to produce derivative works continues and the group have since expanded their devotion to protecting internet freedom on all aspects.

Four years on, KBFL has garnered over 22,000 likes on their Facebook page and on twitter has more than 700 followers. In the beginning of the Occupy Movement, KBFL spokesperson Glacier Kwong was invited to shoot a video inspired by the “I am Ukranian” viral video that brought people’s attention to the protests in Ukraine in early 2014. The video, “Please help Hong Kong”, has received more than 1.3 million views and many more (pleasant and unpleasant) comments.

Many of the group’s original members have left and have been replaced. The group now has six core members and their present and past members come from all walks of life, including lawyers, designers, students… it’s a mixed bunch. Their spokesperson, 19 year old Glacier Kwong, is a student from the University of Hong Kong and joined the group when she was just 16 years old. She is also a host on Civic Passion’s Passion Times internet channel, although she insists she is not a member of the political party herself. Harbour Times spoke with her recently.

How was Keyboard Frontline founded?

Keyboard Frontline is an organisation that represents netizens. We deal with all issues related with the internet. For example, the current Copyright Bill, ‘Right to be forgotten’, ‘Access to computer with criminal or dishonest intent’, are all issues we address. We feel the internet is one of the most important platforms which ensure people’s freedom of speech and many other freedoms.

In 2011, the Government proposed an amendment to copyright laws. Our original members saw that it could stifle derivative works, and eventually hinder freedom of speech, so they began speaking out on this issue. They first began on the Golden Forum (a popular local internet forum similar to Reddit), and that’s how we made our name.

Many of the original core members have left and have since been replaced, with only two of the original founders left. They were all normal citizens with no political background, although one eventually joined LSD.

Why the name ‘Keyboard Frontline’?

Our original members wanted to mobilise the ‘keyboard fighters’ (people who only complain online but never confront the issue in reality) to really participate in political movements, instead of just typing at the keyboard with their criticisms. We believed if we could mobilise this community, their strength would be great.

How would you explain your fame on the Internet?

In the beginning no one really cared about the copyright amendment, but once we kept pushing, people realised what the bill was and what the potential dangerous implications were. We showed up and protested at every consultation, and received a lot of media coverage. Then we leveraged our influence on Golden and were able to amplify the debate on the matter.

We really picked up a lot of attention on social media when the government brought back the copyright amendment bill in around 2013. That’s when we created our own original content and pushed it through social media, attracting likes and followers.

What is your political stance? Are differences within the group?

We are localists. I think our position on the spectrum would be in between Gary Fan (moderate localist) and Civic Passion (slightly more radical localist) but closer to the latter. It doesn’t mean we can’t work with legislators from different parts of the spectrum. Our issue isn’t inherently political, so we are friendly with all sorts of lawmakers.

We were all pro-democratic to start with. The core members who started the organisation got to know each other by selling June 4th commemoration t-shirts. So by default they were quite pro-democratic.

There are some differences in our political beliefs though. Some believe there is no need for independence, some, like myself, believe in independence. So our beliefs are close but still diverse. But it doesn’t mean we can’t come to consensus on issues.

There are times when we argue about whether we should say certain things. For example, when it came to LGBT related issues, we had a discussion on how we should word it. We almost always reach consensus in the end.

We do want to raise political awareness, but not necessarily in any direction. We don’t believe any particular ideology is completely ‘correct’

How has your raison d’etre changed since the beginning?

In the beginning we focused on copyright laws. We wanted to save derivative works. Now, we consider the issues involving the entire internet to be under our scope. We want to protect the Internet on the entire spectrum.

We really only wanted to use our social media influence to [engage and mobilise netizens] to protect internet freedom issues, but then our direction changed a little bit. We have begun doing research projects. Recently we released the ‘Who’s on Your Side’ report. Soon we will have others, such as the ‘Chilling Effect’ report. We want to expand beyond just social media to protect internet freedom through more academic approaches.

What is your goal, and ultimately, your vision of an ideal Hong Kong?

We want an open internet. At the very least, we must guarantee freedom of speech. There are many different laws, such as section 161 [Access to computer with criminal or dishonest intent] that hinder freedom of speech. We have already seen how it has affected freedom of speech on the internet. The copyright amendment bill will stifle creativity online. We’re not saying the internet should be an extreme free-for-all that is out of control. We’re saying these laws must not infringe on basic human rights.

For myself, an ideal HK should be fair. Everyone should be born and entitled to the same rights. I think the one right we’ve all been talking about lately is the right to vote. We need Universal Suffrage.

How will you achieve your goals to maintain an open internet?

We have and will keep writing different amendment bills, proposals and counter-proposals, and research projects. At the very least, we hope through these formal channels we will reach those in power and tell them this is what we hope for, so we can have discussions or even bargain.

Externally, we hope to publish research and articles to raise people’s awareness to motivate them to bring change.

The ‘Who’s on your side’ report, which scrutinised the transparency and privacy policies of 9 Online Service Providers (OSPs), achieved extensive coverage through social media. It forced one OSP to change their private policy the next day! Even the privacy commission covered the issue.

Our next project, the ‘Chilling effect’ report, will look at OSPs, and see how many personal information of their users they provided to Government bodies or the Police in the past year. We hope to provide analysis on this to raise awareness as it is actually quite severe in HK.

On the Copyright issue, we continue to provide research for legislators. In the beginning the Government officials were curious why the lawmakers all had the same information and asked questions we’ve asked before. Even pro-establishment legislators used resources created by us.

Ultimately, we want to become the go-to group for research regarding the internet.