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Internet regulation more difficult than it seems

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton knows a thing or two about difficult negotiating partners. So it was perhaps surprising this weekend to hear a woman who once stared down enemies of the state direct some of her strongest public criticism in years to the leadership of social media company Facebook.“It’s authoritarian,” she said. “I feel like you’re negotiating with a foreign power sometimes.“This is a global company that has a huge influence in ways that we’re only beginning to understand.”If Mrs. Clinton found reckoning with an entity of Facebook's size and influence so difficult, one has to wonder about the chances of the Samoan Government to bring it under control.As the Samoa Observer reported last week the Government is trying to make international companies accountable to Samoan law and to regulate defamatory and disturbing content online (“Social media giants in Govt. sights”).On first inspection this seems like an impossible task.But the way social media giants, especially Facebook, are responding to Governments around the world have recently undergone a dramatic change. The long-held view that they lie beyond the scope of national regulation no longer applies.In fact, the main question surrounding the Government’s proposed social policy should change from whether it is possible to how it should be enacted.As some recent examples from other countries show, regulating online content for reasons of taste and accuracy is much less straightforward than it seems.The law would require Facebook - and its other social media cousins, Instagram, Snapchat, Youtube etc. - to register Samoan corporate entities which, in turn, would make them accountable to local laws and regulations regarding defamation.The intent behind the Government’s policy is commendable.The spread this week of apparent misinformation about the coronavirus having reached Samoan shores is testament to the capabilities of these platforms to cause panic.Unlike old media, where information is carefully vetted by professional journalists and editors, social media has no editors.What pours forth from this lawless environment can often not just be inaccurate but disturbing.As we saw during the measles epidemic and last year’s scandals relating to the abandonment of newborn babies, shocking visual material is posted online too regularly.It’s become clear that the companies cannot be relied upon to self-regulate.For one thing, the task is proving too great.According to Facebook figures the company banned some three billion newly created fake accounts in just six months last year.Even if their screening process hits the mark 99 per cent of the time that leaves some 30 million fake accounts.And the old idea that the internet cannot be regulated is giving way to a new reality.According to its own figures, Facebook removed 20,000 pieces of material last year in response to requests from Governments.Instead the company has begun pleading with regulators to set standards for what constitutes appropriate online content.It's already investing serious time and resources into regulating the content on its websites and its judgement is always going to fall in for criticism.As the Wall Street Journal put it pithiliy recently the companies’ new message to Governments can be summarised as: “Please regulate us”.It might seem counter-intuitive but the logic is obvious.Facebook wants Governments, not its own employees, to make difficult judgement calls.Samoa is only the latest among a series of national Governments seeking to provide them with a framework.Germany in 2018 passed a law that would fine Facebook if it failed to take down offensive material within 24 hours.In the United Kingdom moves are afoot to place a "duty of care" on social media companies who will face legal penalties if they fail to protect their consumers.The most intriguing recent example, though, comes from Singapore, which passed anti "fake news" legislation giving Government the power to flag and order the correction of content it deems misleading.That law has been invoked five times since it was passed; each has involved content originating from critics of Government or opposition political parties – something its Government says is just a coincidence.This week the Government issued its sixth order for a correction, this time about a post critical about the country’s death penalty policy made by the group Lawyers for Liberty.When the communications Minister, Afamasaga Rico Tupai, unveiled the regulation plans his concern was whether Facebook would take notice of the request. Joining forces with other Pacific states was one suggested means of increasing Samoa’s bargaining power.But in this new climate it seems that achieving a new regime for online regulation is far from impossible.Some online content, such as graphic images or incitement to or recording of criminal activity are obvious cut and dried examples of material that should be removed.Other examples could be considered a grey area.A new policy for regulating online content needs to be accompanied by a discussion about how we define inappropriate material and in whom we vest the responsibility to have it taken down.We also need to ask whether existing laws regulating speech in Samoa, including criminal libel legislation, are adequate to cover any such online offences. There is a risk that in rushing to the eminently sensible cause of banning the most offensive examples, we might place other less clear-cut forms of expression at risk too.And if Mrs. Clinton's judgement of Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg and his company's ethics is correct, it is clear that the obligation to make sure that these nuances and freedoms are respected will fall entirely upon us

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Street Talk

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Public support ban of children from church services

Alofa Isaia, 25, AfegaI think there should be a ban on young children from attending church services as they are the ones most vulnerable to measles. Keeping them at home is the best option in order to lessen the risks of spreading the virus. If the children are allowed in church this will make the measles spread to other children and make them sick. For us adults we can handle the pain but the children cannot and this is why I totally support the ban on children from church services.Fotu Faafetai, 37, SavaiiI totally support the ban on children from church services to prevent the measles from spreading from one child to another. Measles can spread fast and affect everyone and the children are the most vulnerable. Church service is a part of our everyday life but the health of our children is more important to us. I have children as well and I know how painful it will be if my child got the measles and loses his or her life.Aisepka Lokeni, 57, Nu’uWe should listen to the advice from the church ministers to ban children from attending church services, as the risk of them spreading the measles to other kids is high. The Bible says we have to obey our leaders, and that is why we should listen to our leaders and save our children and vulnerable people from dying. I totally support the ban to prevent measles from spreading even faster.John Ale, 50, Vaitele FouI support the ban on children from attending church service because this will prevent measles from getting spread to other children, and getting the other children infected. We all want to go to church, but going to church service with children who have measles – they will only spread it and this will affect other children, and the disease will spread.Fotulafai Reupena, 61, Vaitele FouI take off my hat to the government for the decision to ban children from attending church services and public areas due to the measles outbreak. We should protect them from the virus. I read media reports of many children losing their lives from measles, if this fatalities continue there could be no more young generation for Samoa. We have to protect our own children, and the children are the future of our country. Faititili Tipasa, 40, AfegaI totally support the ban on children from church because I know that the children are the ones most affected by the measles. I prefer children not attend any church service as they can be easily affected if they still go and it will lead to more infections. Ensuring the children stay home will prevent measles from spreading, and protect other children infection. 

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Letter to Editor

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China and developments at Mulifanua

Kevin Hart’s letter of 03 September complained about the Chinese being a likely buyer of Government’s shareholding in the Sheraton Samoa Resort at Mulifanua. Which raises the question; what is wrong with Chinese investors getting involved in tourism development in Samoa anyway especially when there isn’t much interest from elsewhere? Virtually every other country in the Pacific and the world including the US and Australia, China’s foremost critics have been enjoying the benefits of Chinese trade, investment, and tourism. So why not Samoa?Whether people like it or not, China will be a major player in the region, and it will only get worse with time for those who wish it otherwise. And in any case, one can’t do business with China as China’s critics do, and then seek to deny the Pacific Islands the same privilege by engaging in fearmongering about China’s intentions.  Samoa’s deputy prime minister called this bahaviour recently, patronizing and offensive. It is also dishonest. One would have thought that with colonialism still fresh in people’s minds, China’s detractors might have tried some more subtle way to make their case about China being a threat to Island nations. After all, these are nations that have only recently won back their own sovereignty from countries that are accusing China, a victim of colonialism itself, of malevolent intent in the Pacific.  Samoa’s prime minister made the point at the Pacific Island Forum that China is not an enemy of Samoa, which adheres to a “friend to all and enemy to none” approach to old and new comers alike to the region. The Pacific islands have legitimate economic needs and environmental interests that the former colonial powers in the Pacific have been unable to meet or in some cases totally ignored. Over the years, the Pacific Island nations have even been blamed for supposedly lagging in economic growth behind other parts of the world that receive similar levels of aid. But more recent work on the subject has confirmed what the Pacific Islands have known all along. And that is when you are small, highly fragmented and horribly isolated, your costs of attempting any form of economic activity are always going to be high no matter what you do.  China’s willingness and ability to help bridge this aid gap is welcomed therefore. It also helps that China has a different approach in its relations with the tiny and insignificant Pacific Island states and peoples. And it happens it’s an approach that the Pacific peoples themselves understand all too well and appreciate. Its an approach that recognizes the inherent dignity of peoples irrespective of colour, money and level of development. The result is that in spite of the fear mongering about China’s supposedly hidden agenda even in the face of evidence to the contrary, the Pacific Islands have seen no reason to believe this crude and offensive propaganda.  There appears to have been a notable increase lately in the number of visits by navy vessels and personnel from the US and Australia doing the usual public relations soft sell with various groups including school children. The visit on board these war machines and the helicopter rides for the children will have been the thrill of a lifetime for many. One suspects that we will be seeing more of these as the West sets out to contain the rise of Chinese influence in the region. The visits bring back to mind the colonial days of gun boat diplomacy in the Pacific when control of native populations was exercised mainly through the firepower of visiting warships when turned on native communities that failed to toe the line   Samoa’s prime minister is reported to have said recently in relation to the stepped-up competition that Samoa’s main interest and focus of diplomacy is to raise standards of living and provide for its people’s needs. In the circumstances, public relations and making friends with young people will only go so far in winning influence especially in the face of China’s hard cash. Airy catch phrases such as Step Up, (Australia), Pacific Uplift, (UK), something about Family? (US), can easily backfire. A meeting between Chinese leaders and Pacific Island leaders being hosted by Samoa in October this year should be quite an event especially at this time. It will most likely see among other things the unveiling of some new aid and trade initiative by China.   And as for Chinese interests possibly helping to bring more air services to Samoa, that too would be a welcome relief from the monopolistic practices of Air New Zealand, Virgin Airways and Fiji Airways, the three carriers that operate services in Samoa today. After being badly burnt in yet another one-sided partnership with an Australian carrier, the Samoan government did the right thing for Samoa in starting up Samoa Airways in spite of the risks and poor timing. When Polynesian Airlines started international services to New Zealand in the late 1970s, it did so mainly on the strength of Samoa’s own ethnic traffic between the two countries. The airline did well even then, until gross mismanagement grounded it with heavy losses. In spite of its inauspicious beginnings, Samoa Airways if properly managed and run, (by professionals preferably), has every chance of being the catalyst for Samoa to have the airline services it so badly needs. But it is helpful as government embarks on this to be reminded that we have been down this very road before. The lessons of history are there and must be learnt and heeded, if their repetition is to be avoided. Incidentally, as for a possible flooding of the To-Sua with tourists from China if direct charter flights were to start between China and Samoa, I have a suggestion. Make the climb down to the water even more challenging than it is now. That should encourage only the young and the brave to take the plunge. Afamasaga F ToleafoaLetava

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