PNG to push out Facebook, taking a sharp turn into cyber censorship
30 May 2018|

Facebook is king in Papua New Guinea (PNG) but its reign may soon be over. This week Communications Minister Sam Basil, a regular Facebook user himself, announced that PNG would shut down the social media site for a month so that his department can research how the network is being used. While there are mixed signals about whether the ban is a certainty or a proposal under consideration, the intention is disturbing and the enforcement of such a ban would set a dangerous precedent in our region.

Such a movewhich would put PNG alongside China, Iran and North Koreawould completely upend the country’s interconnected and diverse digital ecosystem that’s relied on by the public, businesses and civil society.

Facebookas it’s done elsewhere around the worldhas successfully embedded itself into the fabric of how Papua New Guineans socialise, do business and engage with the world. You name it and there’s a Facebook group in PNG talking about it. Buyers and sellers, hobbyists, the politically interested, building contractors, tourists, health authorities and provinces congregate together under a multitude of Facebook groups.

Over the last five years, use of Facebook has grown more than fivefold, from 136,000 users to an estimated 730,000 active users today. Overall, total internet penetration in PNG is still low, hovering at around 11% of the 8 million population, but these numbers are growing quickly. An additional 110,000 active social media users jumped online in 2017–2018, and Facebook itself increased its PNG user base by 18% over the same period. The overwhelming majority of users, 92% to be exact, access the social network from a mobile phone.

Google searches show the extent of the country’s Facebook engagement. After ‘PNG’ the second most googled search term by Papua New Guineans is ‘Facebook’, with the fifth being ‘Facebook Login.’

And how does the Australian government communicate with Papua New Guineans? Through Facebook of course.

According to local media, the PNG government has said the Facebook shutdown ‘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.

The government’s concerns are all legitimate and most countries are facing a similar set of issues. But it’s important to keep in mind fake accounts, pornography and misleading information is a problem for most networksincluding Youtube, Reddit and Instagramall of which have small chunks of users in PNG. And if pornography is the problem, the PNG government should start a conversation with Twitter. A wide range of PNG accounts appear to be using the microblogging site to push out pornography domestically and internationally.

This may shock some, but the signs have always been there. Over the past decade the government has threatened to block political blogs, announced a ‘monitoring committee’ tasked with identifying citizens who express views the government believes are ‘subversive’, and introduced vague regulations that civil society groups claim protect politicians from criticism. Under the country’s overly broad ICT laws charges can be laid, for example, if someone is judged to be causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another person via the ‘improper use of ICT services’.

While the government has claimed the ban will be temporary, what if this doesn’t end up being the case? Even if there are current intentions to bring the network back online later this year, it’s just as easy, once political battles have been won, to put a ban extension on the table.

At the end of the day, it’s likely the PNG government’s skirmish with Facebook has more to do with reining in political debate than anything else. Only time will tell if this is an empty threat or the government really will flick the off switch. In the meantime, there are four issues that policymakers, industry and civil society must consider:

  1.    The PNG government can enact a ban on Facebook

Unfortunately, enacting such a ban isn’t difficult. The PNG government may not have a well-resourced public service, including on ICT and cyber issues, but it only has to ask the country’s telecommunications and internet service providers to block both and the Facebook messenger application in order to impose this ban.

  1.    This is very bad for the PNG economy

Partial or full internet takedowns can cost a country hundreds of millions of dollars. Banning Facebook will make it almost impossible for most PNG businesses to easily reach their customers. It will also cut off isolated communities from local civil society groups and disrupt the communication channels of a host of local and provincial governments. The PNG government’s promise to look into creating a homegrown alternative social network is very unlikely to get off the ground. It would be expensive, resource-intensive and would require third-party assistance to gain any traction. The hardest part? Getting the public to actually use it.

  1.    This is also bad for Australia

With APEC around the corner (for more details, head to the PNG government’s official APEC Facebook page), this sharp turn into cyber censorship is a setback for all Australian organisations with an interest in PNG. This is also a blow for the Australian government, which has invested significant public resources in both PNG and in its cyber diplomacy. With one of our most important bilateral partners threatening such blatant cyber censorship, it shows that there’s a lot of hard and important work that DFAT must do close to home to convince our neighbours that a free and open cyber space is in their national interests. It’s vital for the Australian government to link up with industry to encourage the PNG government away from cyber censorship that will be detrimental to both the economy and to PNG’s hosting of APEC.

  1.    It’s terrible for PNG’s place in the world

A Facebook ban will of course stifle public debate and make it difficult for both local and regional media to report on the country. It will also make it difficult for the world to get a good glimpse into PNG and for Papua New Guineans overseas to connect back home. Intentionally advancing its own online isolation—in a world where it already struggles to attract international attention—is the very last thing that PNG needs.