Papua New Guinea, a small, island nation that shares a border with Indonesia, may soon turn off Facebook. The nation's communication minister suggested Tuesday that the government restrict access to the site for one month while it conducts research into issues like fake profiles, misinformation, and pornography. PNG will also reportedly explore creating its own, government-run alternative to Facebook.
When the news reached Western outlets Tuesday, some people applauded. It appeared that a developing nation was fighting back against a platform historically hellbent on bringing its services to every corner of the globe. But the reality of how people in Papua New Guinea use Facebook is more complicated than it first appears, and the reaction to what's happening in the country says more about how the US struggles with the tech giant than it does about PNG.
For one, the Facebook ban is only theoretical, at least for now. Sam Basil, Papua New Guinea's communications minister, explained the proposed shutdown in the country's Post Courier Tuesday, without clarifying why the country would need to block Facebook to conduct research. After the proposed Facebook ban stirred up outrage in PNG and became worldwide news, Basil clarified Wednesday to the same paper that the plan was only one theoretical option.
"I will consider relevant—and responsible—government action," Basil told the paper. "The national government, swept along by IT globalization, never really had the chance to ascertain the advantages and disadvantages—and even educate and provide guidance on use of social networks like Facebook to PNG users."
For now, Papua New Guinea's Facebook blackout remains theoretical. But were it to happen, the effects could be disastrous.
A Tech Giant on the Island
Papua New Guinea has relatively low internet penetration, partially because getting access on the remote island nation remains expensive. It's also not one of the 63 countries where mobile carriers have partnered with Facebook's Internet.org project to provide free access to resources like Wikipedia, health information, and, of course, Facebook.
'Facebook has allowed for a kind of dialogue that was not seen before in this country.'
Paige West, Columbia University
Only an estimated 10 percent of the country's 8 million people had internet access in 2014, according to the International Telecommunications Union, though around half said they have mobile phones. But those dated statistics don't paint an accurate picture of the role Facebook plays in the country, according to academics and people who live there.
Paige West, an anthropologist at Barnard College and Columbia University who has been working in Papua New Guinea for over two decades, says that Facebook is ubiquitous, especially for people under 30. "Facebook has allowed for a kind of dialogue that was not seen before in this country," says West. "It has facilitated a kind of communication across clans and outside language groups that is extraordinary."
Papua New Guineans agree that Facebook is an important resource for communicating and facilitating business—and are bewildered at the idea of their government blocking the site. "I'm a photographer and being a PNG woman, visibility is a struggle for me. Facebook has been a platform for me to share my work because it's widely used by Papua New Guineans," says Tania Basiou, an artist from the country. "There are countless other issues that the government could be tackling instead. The PNG government has neglected basic services for its people. We have more urgent matters that a Facebook ban won't fix."
Rashmii Bell, an opinion writer from Papua New Guinea, says that she uses Facebook to learn how people in PNG process issues in their communities, both in urban and rural places. "This input is invaluable in conveying perspectives of everyday PNG, that may not be as accessible elsewhere," she says.
Some Papua New Guineans acknowledge that there is misinformation on Facebook, but that it's often quickly corrected. And the country hasn't seen human rights abuses facilitated by Facebook, as has notably happened in Myanmar. Overall, many Papua New Guineans expressed outrage and confusion about why the government would want to restrict access to such an important line of communication. Facebook, for its part, appears not to know either.
"We have reached out to the government to understand their concerns," a Facebook spokesperson said in a statement.
Another Internet Shutdown
As other countries have before it, Papua New Guinea may simply want to better control the spread of information within its own borders by censoring portions of the web. Internet shutdowns have become unfortunately common place: They happened in at least 30 countries in the last two years, according to data compiled by Access Now, a global nonprofit that advocates for a free and open internet. The organization views Papua New Guinea's mulling over a ban in much the same way that it has viewed other shutdowns in the past.
"We clearly oppose this move as an unlawful restriction on freedom of expression," says Peter Micek, general counsel at Access Now. "It's not entirely unexpected; we've seen a rise in intentional disruptions over the last couple of years. These blunt blocking measures are really attractive to policy makers who don't really understand what's going on online and often feel like they can't control the spread of information."
'The government is concerned because a lot of the corrupt dealings and activities are being exposed in detail on Facebook.'
Mellie Musonera, PNG
Papua New Guinea also wouldn't be the first county in the region to block Facebook; the island nation of Nauru restricted access to the site over pornography-related concerns in 2015. Observers worry, though, that Papua New Guinea is merely borrowing problems cited by other countries, like fraudulent profiles and fake news, to try to block speech.
"The government is concerned because a lot of the corrupt dealings and activities are being exposed in detail on Facebook," says Mellie Musonera, a conservation biologist from PNG. "Facebook users are posting evidence such as bank statements, letters, photos and more which already shows and implicates members of parliament of being involved in suspicious and even criminal dealings."
Targeting fake profiles and pornography also seems a bit specious. Activists and other vulnerable groups often conceal their identity to protect themselves, and posting porn is already against Facebook's policies.
Avoiding the Same Mistakes
Papua New Guinea's proposed Facebook ban, as Micek notes, does appear different from other internet shutdowns or blocking efforts. For one, it's not connected to an election—as many often are—and the proposed duration isn't especially long. That might mean Papua New Guinea genuinely wants to carry out an experiment to learn how the platform influences the country.
Francisco Bencosme, the Asia Pacific advocacy manager at Amnesty International, says that scandals like the one over data firm Cambridge Analytica have influenced how Asian countries think about their relationship to platforms like Facebook. Indonesia, Papua New Guinea's neighbor, was directly involved: Data belonging to around one million of its citizens was believed to have been swept up by the data firm.
In one sense, Papua New Guinea and other nations like it could be applauded for attempting to prevent Facebook from becoming the country's dominant distributor of information. But the manner in which it's they're doing so—threatening to completely block valuable services—is a clear cause for concern.
Few considered how Papua New Guinea's own citizens even feel about the proposed ban, which propelled their often ignored home into global headlines. It's fundamentally unfair for Westerns to assume they know how Papua New Guineans use Facebook, or what the platform means to their country. "You cannot assume you understand that, because you understand Facebook in the United States," West says.