Facebook ban would punish majority: expert

Proposals to ban Facebook would deprive the majority of Samoans of a useful tool while punishing a minority who would be likely to break the law anyway, a local I.T. expert has warned. 

President of the Samoa Information Technology Association Fainuulelei James Ah Wai, speaking personally and not on behalf of the 120 members of S.I.T.A., said the biggest problem with Facebook are some of its users abusing the platform.

The Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi, has said the constant use of Facebook by "faceless" users to spread "lies" and "defame" members of the public, including high profile Government and business officials, has forced the Government to consider a ban on the platform. 

Last week Tuilaepa said discussions are widening to encompass all social media platforms, not only Facebook, and he challenged people behind ‘fake pages’ to stop propagating false information to influence the 2021 General Election.

Fainuulelei said if people are not taught how to use platforms like Facebook responsibly, the problems will simply migrate to another site.

“The root of the problem is some individuals - people out there who are using the platform to try and make some noise,” Fainuulelei said. 

“If you don’t like someone you put information out there whether it is verified or not, to abuse them.

“The Government has [its] own agenda but if individuals know how to use it wisely for the benefit of their business and their families, then there shouldn’t be a problem.

“It all comes down to the person who sits on the keyboard.”

One answer to the problem of Facebook misuse and abuse is teaching people, especially when they are children, how to use the platform and what to look out for while using the web, Fainuulelei suggested.

It has been one of the goals of S.I.T.A. since its inception to run training programmes in schools, but the measles outbreak and COVID-19 pandemic delayed that work.

Nevertheless, Fainuulelei says the knowledge and tools are already in Samoa and with 120 members in S.I.T.A. there is a ready workforce of I.C.T. experts who can start helping Samoa’s youth today. 

“We need more awareness programmes on safer internet [use] for youth, children and the community,” he said.

Fainuulelei admits he is not a fan of Facebook and even left the platform for a while, unhappy with the level of abuse and misinformation he witnessed on it. 

But he eventually returned to take advantage of the regional and international I.C.T. community spaces that use it.

By blocking all the anonymous pages and users that he had a problem with he was able to enjoy using the site. 

As to whether a ban could actually happen, he said with the right structures in place it could.

Samoa’s internet services providers [I.S.P.], which filter all sites used in the country, will need to be consulted on how viable a Facebook ban would be. 

And if they say it can be done and the legislation can be written to back it up, it is a possibility, Fainuulelei added. 

“Anything is possible from their end [the Government] and from a technical perspective it is possible, if other countries can do it.

“But the internet service providers control the pipeline from outside.”

But when deciding whether or not to ban Facebook, Fainuulelei said Samoa must consider how useful the tool has become.

It is a cheap, user-friendly and powerful platform that has been used by families to keep in touch, by small businesses to grow and by health authorities to spread important information during two health disasters, the measles epidemic and the COVID-19 global pandemic. 

Digicel’s own research found that 70,000 Samoans were active social media users in 2019. Neither it or Vodafone have responded to previous requests for comment on the proposed ban.

“It has brought a lot of good things for business, advertising, communicating to the outside world, groups can learn from each other… but it comes with negatives as well: misinformation and hate speech,” he said. 

“I think it’s for the Government and everyone to weigh up the benefits and disadvantages and go from there.”

There is also the problem of whether a ban would work practically. 

In countries such as China, which has banned Facebook, customers access Virtual Private Networks to access blocked sites.

Fainuulelei said he hopes the Government changes its mind over banning Facebook and considers its benefits to Samoa, not only its risks: 

“It’s only a few people ruining the whole benefit of Facebook for everyone.”

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