Papua New Guinea government plans to block access to Facebook

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The Papua New Guinea (PNG) government declared on May 29 it will ban Facebook use for a month to give authorities time to analyse the social network for “fake” profiles and “illegal” usage.

Communications Minister Sam Basil told the
PNG Post-Courier : “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.”

Just under 10 percent of PNG’s eight million people have access to the Internet, one of the lowest rates in the world. Even so, Facebook has become a popular place to discuss politics, especially among young people. Many use the site to criticise the government and expose corruption. Tens of thousands have accessed World Socialist Web Site articles and hundreds follow the Socialist Equality Party (Australia) Facebook page.

Facebook, which has more than two billion users, is facing mounting pressure from governments globally. The Cambridge Analytica scandal has been used to intensify the push to censor the Internet and silence opposition to official politics.

A start date is yet to be announced. Basil later told parliament he disputed the newspaper’s report about an impending ban. He said the government’s official position would be made known after studies into “the advantages and disadvantages of Facebook.” Nevertheless, Basil declared he was “not afraid to put an indefinite ban” on the networking site.

Meanwhile, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported on May 29 that the PNG government intends to use its investigation to work out how to apply a restrictive “cyber-crime law” to social media more widely.

The move coincides with a decision to disconnect mobile phone sim cards that are not registered to users with formal identification. Basil told the ABC the disconnection would stop people using telecommunications and social media anonymously, claiming false accounts are used to “spread fake news and rumours.”

Basil previously said US Senate hearings on Facebook and a class action lawsuit against Cambridge Analytica and other companies over misuse of data raised concerns “for Papua New Guinea citizens.” Last month he commissioned a study of Facebook’s “impact” and the security of users’ personal information. He claimed “a lot of people” are receiving “threats,” “fake news” and “defamatory statements” from unknown accounts.

The purported concern for ordinary citizens is bogus. Over the past two years, the unpopular government led by Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has turned to increasingly authoritarian measures to suppress discontent among the working class and rural poor over austerity measures. Military-police operations have suppressed student protests and strikes.

Soldiers have been deployed to break blockades of major gas projects in the Highlands by local landowners over a range of grievances.

Speaking to the ABC, Basil flatly denied that the Facebook ban was an attempt to restrict freedom of speech. However, he insisted that while politicians are legitimately open to criticism, “whenever there is criticism we must ensure that it is factual” and opponents “must have alternatives if they are criticising a government policy.”

Basil suggested the creation of a government-sponsored alternative to Facebook. “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,” he told the Post-Courier .

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