Debate arose in Papua New Guinea last week over comments made by Communications Minister Sam Basil about the possible imposition of a month-long ban on Facebook. This partial internet shutdown, according to Basil, would allow the government to conduct research on the use of anonymous accounts to spread fake news, pornography, and misleading information.
Evidence shows that most partial or full shutdowns of internet access are enforced by regimes aiming to suppress freedom of expression. So it was unsurprising that Basil’s comments, first published in the Post-Courier newspaper, received global attention and provoked significant opposition in PNG.
Basil later claimed that the Post-Courier report was misleading. He argued that the temporary ban was one option among many being considered by the government to address what he had described as an abuse of the platform. The Post-Courier was quick to defend its story, stating that the Minister’s quotes were reported accurately.
It is difficult to estimate the impact of the proposed temporary ban. Statistics show that only about 12% of the PNG population are internet users, and the number of Facebook users is likely smaller still. However, Facebook plays a major role in information sharing in PNG. A ban would certainly affect the ability of this small yet influential population to share news and information.
Growing distrust of local media, including allegations of bias and a lack of critical reporting on government issues, has pushed many users towards social media, where information leaks and critical viewpoints are shared. Unfortunately, reliance on social media leaves many vulnerable to fake news and misleading information. While the downsides of social media are obvious, it is not clear that a temporary ban is the answer.
The motives and intentions behind the government’s suggested ban are similarly unclear. But so are details of the research it wishes to produce, and how exactly any ban will be enforced.
At the technological level, although the PNG Government doesn’t have a central filtering system, it could require all internet service providers (ISPs) in the country to restrict access to the addresses of Facebook’s servers. This would be an unpopular decision from a business perspective – social media use accounts for a significant portion of data traffic which ISPs charge customers for.
There are many easily accessible ways to bypass internet filtering despite a government ban. And the public will likely use other social media platforms, including those which host and share the fake news and illicit material the government says it is looking to curb. It is also hard to imagine that the available expertise and resources in PNG could produce the desired research within a month.
Basil had claimed that government agencies were working alongside the state telecom regulator NICTA and the National Research Institute (NRI) on this research. However, according to a spokesperson speaking to the ABC, NRI had not received any such request from the government. Member of the Opposition and Madang MP Bryan Kramer, a vocal critic of the government, also questioned the methodology of this on his Facebook page, asking “how does one shut down a platform to carry out research on it?”
Kramer also highlighted one of the main concerns regarding the proposed ban – censorship under the guise of user protection. Prime Minister Peter O’Neill’s People’s National Congress government has previously faced similar accusations related to the controversial cybercrime bill passed soon after foiled demonstrations in May 2016, largely coordinated through social media, during which University of Papua New Guinea students were shot. That Kramer was later referred to the parliamentary privileges committee for strong criticisms posted on Facebook only adds to this sense of concern.
Later in the week, Basil stated in parliament that he had not set a date for the possible Facebook ban, and that it was mere speculation to suggest it will coincide with November’s APEC Leaders’ Summit in Port Moresby. He added that if advice derived from the research suggested that a complete ban was the right option, then the government would not hesitate in doing so.
A complete ban of an important, if imperfect, platform would be a serious impediment to freedom of expression, and all but confirm speculation that the ban was merely censorship under the guise of user protection.
Given the public backlash to Basil’s comments, not to mention the international coverage it has received, it is difficult to imagine the PNG Government following through with such a heavy-handed decision. The current opposition is the most vocal in recent years, and the O’Neill government will wish to avoid showing vulnerabilities in the lead-up to APEC.
If the government is serious about protecting its citizens online, then creating an environment where they can safely use the internet should be the goal, not blocking parts of it altogether. If they are serious about fighting misinformation, the government should focus on creating more transparent pathways for verified information to reach the media and public. Without transparency there will always be opportunities for merchants of misinformation to exploit.