Last week, Papua New Guinea made international headlines when its government said it would consider banning Facebook for a month.
Announced by the country’s communications minister Sam Basil on Jun. 29, the department and its National Research Institute would be tasked to understand how Papua New Guineans were using Facebook — but not everyone’s convinced it’s this straightforward.
“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 said, according to the Post Courier.
“This will allow genuine people with real identities to use the social network responsibly.”
Basil ambitiously added he would look into the “possibility of creating a new social network site for PNG citizens to use with genuine profiles as well,” enlisting the help of local developers to create it.
But the timing and the sudden decision to do so has raised eyebrows, and not all are convinced by the PNG government’s reasoning for the block.
‘This is kinda out of nowhere’
One of these skeptics is Papua New Guinean writer and blogger Martyn Namorong, who believes the ban proposal is merely a distraction.
Namorong pointed to the policy-focused National Research Institute (NRI), who he doesn’t believe has the capability to analyse the social network.
“They don’t employ computer geeks and all that stuff,” he said. “They could hire someone if they have the budget, but at the moment they do not have the technical capacity, and we’re not even sure it’s even within their mandate.”
A spokesperson for the NRI told ABC News it received no request from the government, nor was it working on a Facebook-related project.
Aim Sinpeng, an expert in digital media and political participation in Southeast Asia from the University of Sydney, said she doesn’t buy the reason for banning it.
“This is kinda out of nowhere, and the timeframe is strange,” she explained.
“One month, not longer or less, and the reasoning doesn’t seem to make sense because you can do all those things by analysing information without having to shut it down. So the bigger question is, what are they actually doing with Facebook?”
Also questioning the block is Kasek Galgal, a researcher and academic at the University of Papua New Guinea.
“I’m not sure how much they’re going to achieve what’s been described.”
“I’m not sure how much they’re going to achieve what’s been described, given the expertise and resources they’ll be able to commit to it,” he said. “From what I can gain from the general public and on PNG groups on Facebook is that there may be other motives at hand.”
One of these motives would possibly be to prevent government criticism during the APEC summit, which takes place in November.
It’s a move that government has been “strongly advised to reconsider” by the director of PNG’s Institute of National Affairs, Paul Barker, according to the Post-Courier.
Again, there are other alternatives to shutting Facebook down. The PNG government could request Facebook to hand over personal data, and the company can choose to cooperate or not, Sinpeng said.
In its transparency report, Facebook said it received zero requests for information from PNG in the second-half of 2017.
Mashable asked Facebook if it had received any warning of PNG’s intention to block the website, which it didn’t address. A Facebook spokesperson said it had “reached out to the Papua New Guinea government to understand their concerns.”
How Papua New Guineans use Facebook
As in many other countries, Facebook has become a way for people to discuss and consume news, especially as press freedom in the country is being increasingly challenged.
“One thing that the public has been critical of is of local, mainstream media and their reporting of issues relating to the government, and many here have sought other avenues for which they can discuss and provide discourse on the government,” Galgal said.
There’s also the matter of media distribution. Newspaper distribution is mainly concentrated in the country’s urban centres, or in other areas it’s dependent on flights, and whether there is a newsagent.
Radio access is determined by electricity availability, and if you’re able to get a signal. But mobile penetration has been on the up in the past few years.
As of 2016, 12 percent of the Papua New Guinean population had access to the internet, a sharp rise from 2011, when it was 2 percent of the country.
“People seem to have found innovative ways to charge their phone. That’s why Facebook is a very powerful platform for delivering news and commentary,” Namorong said.
In the Pacific and South-East Asia, the number of people on Facebook is close to the total number of people online. For many people in these regions, their first exposure to cyberspace is via Facebook.
Sinpeng said there is also an increasing trend towards purported “anti-fake news” measures, but in Asia, the onus is on the user, rather than the platform they use.
“A lot of these governments are trying to find a way to rein in what’s happening online.”
In Malaysia, an anti-fake news bill passed in April, and has already convicted one person who went to jail for a month after he criticised police on YouTube for responding too slowly to a shooting.
The Philippines, Indonesia, and Singapore considered similar bills, while India dropped its plans following concerns over free speech.
“A lot of these governments are trying to find a way to rein in what’s happening online,” Sinpeng said. She added these kinds of legislation are written in a vague manner so they aren’t specific to a platform.
“But on the other hand that gives a lot of power for governments to interpret it how they want to,” she explained.
PNG’s Cybercrime Act
In 2016, the country’s Cybercrime Act was passed into law, making offences like hacking, data interference and other improper uses of technology illegal.
These are in line with cybercrime laws in other jurisdictions, but the act also covers content offences like harassment and defamation, with concerns these could be used to quash dissent.
“They’ve created a set of legal hoops surrounding harassment, defamation of character, which already have laws that cover it,” Galgal said.
“It’s only over the past couple of years since they’ve passed the bill that they’ve been able to hold people against it, especially when it comes to their comments on social media.”
On Monday, Basil threatened a rival politician, Bryan Kramer, with arrest and a charge for harassment under the Act.
The incident follows Kramer’s Facebook post last week, which questions the decision to ban the platform, asking “did the dumb just get dumber?” and is superimposed over an image of Basil. It’s this kind of criticism that has got the attention, and perhaps under the skin of local politicians.
“The irony for people like Sam, being in the government and being the minister of communications, his main platform for reaching political audiences is Facebook,” Namorong explained.
“He does understand the situation, and he does understand the value of Facebook.”