Free speech, Facebook and protecting the vulnerable

Fake news, social media, cyber security, internet connectivity, data breaches, online safety and artificial intelligence! 

There must have been plenty to talk about at the 11th Asia Pacific Telecommunity Policy and Regulation Forum, which concludes in Apia today, after three-days of discussions by 70-80 participants. 

Even global telecommunications heavies such as the Commonwealth Telecommunication Organisation, International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and social media giant Facebook confirmed their participation, perhaps confirming the significance of the information superhighway, and how it promises to change lives for the better.

Samoan Regulator, Auelua-Fonoti, said she was pleased that Samoa is hosting the conference and looked forward to the outcomes.

“As the Regulator, I am pleased to see this Forum being hosted by Samoa, and look forward to the positive outcomes that will result from the discussions and workshop next week,” she said.

The conference is facilitated through collaboration between the Asia Pacific Telecommunity, Internet Society, Asia-Pacific Network Information Center and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.

The three-day conference will conclude today with a e-application workshop organised by the ITU and the Pacific Islands Telecommunication Union in partnership with the Asia Pacific Telecommunity.

We also look forward to the conference outcomes, as the use of telecommunications infrastructure is critical for Samoa Observer, just like other media organisations in the region. The use of emails, social media platforms such as Facebook, blogs, websites and online publishing platforms has revolutionise work ethic in newsrooms in the region and somewhat refined news gathering practices. But it has also added extra layers in the news gathering process and increased competition and rivalry between the different media services and organisations.

Which is why I note the irony in the statement by the Chairman of Policy and Regulation Forum for the Pacific, Charles Punaha, when he discussed some of the issues that would be deliberated on during the three-day conference. 

Speaking to Samoa Observer, Mr. Punaha said the region continues to experience challenges relating to cyber security.

“An example is in Papua New Guinea, a lot of fake news has been communicated through social media, and in the process they are defamatory, and people are not accountable for such actions.

“In terms of privacy issues nowadays, of course, there is a big data being hosted by the social media and there is no guarantee that the privacy of the citizens is being protected,” he said.

Mr. Punaha was speaking in his capacity as Chairman of Policy and Regulation Forum for the Pacific, as well as the C.E.O for the National Information and Communications Technology Authority (N.I.C.T.A) in P.N.G. 

Perhaps it is time for him to get his organisation to fund an independent study in the Pacific Islands’ largest social media market (outside Australia and New Zealand), which would define “fake news” as well as identify the basis for its rapid use and spread in a democracy like P.N.G. 

I am sure other Pacific Island states like Samoa and even Fiji would be interested in the findings of such an independent study—should Mr. Punaha and his colleagues agree to go down that path. It is time bureaucrats and technocrats in the Pacific Islands create and make policy decisions using evidence-based research. 

Using “fake news” as a justification to strangle free speech and ultimately press freedom can be seen from a mile away. Mr. Punaha has been using that argument for a couple of years now, and to sell it to Pacific Island peers—in the hope that they would embrace it and set it up based on the P.N.G model—is misleading as it is bound to fail and will only create a misinformed and disempowered population in what is supposed to be thriving democracies.

Thankfully, the discussions at the 11th Asia Pacific Telecommunity Policy and Regulation Forum, have not all been bad and detrimental to our democracies. And we note the appeal by the Commonwealth Telecommunication Organisation for an internet complaints body to be set up by the Samoan Government. 

Acting secretary general and director of the I.C.T development department Gisa Fuatai Purcell said consumers, especially young girls, should have a government body to turn to when the cyber safety, privacy and data breaches occur.

“In other commonwealth countries, they have set up a security centre or Netsafe centre within the office of the regulator,” she explained.

It could be an expensive project, but worthwhile, she said.

“To do it properly, you would need a call centre and that costs a lot of money. You need a building, you need all the equipment.”

The appeal is logical and would be a step in the right direction, due to the increasing use of smartphones by our young people and the proliferation of internet accessibility in Samoa and other Pacific Island nations. It is time to protect the most vulnerable in the communities before it is too late.

What do you think? Have a wonderful Thursday and God bless Samoa.

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