PAPUA NEW GUINEA – The Papua New Guinean government is to ban Facebook for a month in a bid to crack down on “fake users” and study the effects the website is having on the nation’s population.
The Government estimates between 600-700,000 Papua New Guineans use Facebook, less than one tenth of the country’s population.
But the site is a popular and influential place to discuss politics and expose corruption.
The proposal to ban it comes as the government also prepares to disconnect mobile phone sim cards which are not registered to a user with formal identification.
“We believe also that those unidentified sim card holders are involved in creating fake accounts in Facebook that are being used as a tool to go and destroy and spread fake rumours and fake news and distribute pornography in Papua New Guinea,” Communication Minister Sam Basil said.
MPs and officials have shown a high degree of sensitivity to Facebook posts, taking bloggers to court and decrying the use of social media to criticise public figures.
But Basil has denied the proposed ban was in response to criticism or was a threat to freedom of speech.
“I don’t think so because MPs are open to criticism,” he said.
“But we must make sure the criticism they are providing is factual and they must have alternatives if they are criticising a government policy.”
Basil said the shutdown would allow his department’s analysts to carry out research and analysis on who was using the platform, and how they were using it.
“The time will allow information to be collected to identify users that hide behind fake accounts, users that upload pornographic images, users that post false and misleading information on Facebook to be filtered and removed,” Basil told the Post Courier newspaper.
“This will allow genuine people with real identities to use the social network responsibly.”
Opposition MP Bryan Kramer, who has built a large following on Facebook, disagreed.
“It’s a guise for them to test the water on what their capabilities are in controlling social media in PNG,” he said.
“It’s clear that the government’s intent is to prosecute those that have been aggressively critical of their policies and be able to monitor and establish who are those that are driving this public discontent against not only the Prime Minister but the government’s policies.”
Activists and civil society groups have also raised concerns about the government’s intentions.
“To talk about stopping this for a month while someone, somewhere does an analysis of what we should be able to see, sounds pretty authoritarian and pretty worrying,” Transparency International’s PNG chairman Lawrence Stephens said.
The proposal comes as PNG prepares to host the 2018 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders summit later this year.
Basil said he asked government agencies and PNG’s National Research Institute to help investigate what regulatory action it should take.
But when the ABC asked the National Research Institute, a spokesman said it had not received a request from the government and was not working on a Facebook-related project.
Basil has repeatedly raised concerns about protecting the privacy of PNG’s Facebook users in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica revelations, which found Facebook had leaked the personal data of tens of millions of users to a private company. The minister has closely followed the US Senate inquiry into Facebook.
“The national government, swept along by IT globalisation, never really had the chance to ascertain the advantages or disadvantages of Facebook – and even educate and provide guidance on use of social networks like Facebook to PNG users,” said Basil last month.
“The two cases involving Facebook show us the vulnerabilities that Papua New Guinean citizens and residents on their personal data and exchanges when using this social network.”
“We can also look at the possibility of creating a new social network site for PNG citizens to use with genuine profiles as well.
“If there need be, then we can gather our local applications developers to create a site that is more conducive for Papua New Guineans to communicate within the country and abroad as well.”
Basil said the risks and vulnerabilities of Facebook were wider than the potential threat of data breaches, and included the possibility of Facebook acting as an unchecked advertising platform, a threat to people’s productivity – especially among children and employees – and wider issues of cyber-security.
The PNG government said it would be studying how other countries were handling Facebook around the world, and the impact of government policies on private users of the network.
Dr Aim Sinpeng, an expert in digital media and politics from the University of Sydney, said the ban raised some troubling questions, because when Facebook had been banned in other countries it was usually in the run-up to elections, or banned indefinitely, like in China.
“One month is an interesting time limit for a ban, I am not exactly sure what they think they can achieve, and why a ban is necessary.
“You can do Facebook analysis without it. And what data are the government collecting? If they are concerned about fake news there are many ways to do it without issuing a ban on a platform,” she said.
Dr Sinpeng said the most recent statistics she had seen put internet penetration at just 12 per cent in Papua New Guinea, and Facebook penetration was closely related to internet access – meaning it was likely the platform wasn’t used by the vast majority of people.
“Politically I think they will be able to get away with the ban because internet penetration is not high, a ban is not viable in countries with 60-70 per cent penetration. These issues with Facebook are being spoken about in a number of other countries, so the fact that PNG is on the bandwagon shows how widespread concerns have become.”
Shutting down Facebook for a month could be a reckless move, or at best foolish, for a country set to be at the forefront on encouraging a digitalised APEC region, Institute of National Affairs Director, Paul Barker said.
He described the move as a mockery of the rhetoric being urged on by the APEC agenda.
“The APEC meeting is all about promoting the digital era to assist business, develop economies, and improve citizen welfare in member countries,” he said.
“It would be a travesty if PNG sought to close down Facebook during the APEC month, making PNG seem rather foolish, as it would be both an attack on embracing technology, undermining the information era and mechanisms for accountability, but also damaging business and welfare.
“Facebook is no longer just a platform for chatting to friends and relatives, and exchanging photos, it’s now a critical tool for information sharing and social auditing, and also a major platform for business,.”