Is Facebook putting profit before freedom in Southeast Asia?
The social media giant grapples with how to handle rising state censorship pressure in its fastest growing business advertising market
These are profitable yet testing times for Facebook in Southeast Asia, the US-based social media giant’s fastest growing business advertising market worldwide.
On April 25, Thai national Wuttisan Wongtalay live-streamed videos of himself murdering his 11-month-old daughter before committing suicide off-camera. The two videos remained on Facebook for almost 24 hours and were watched by half a million people before they were taken down by the company.
The next day, Facebook’s head of Global Policy Management, Monika Bickert, met with officials from Vietnam’s information and communication ministry to discuss ways of removing content that violates the country’s laws.
Vietnamese law considers “propagandizing” against the state, including over social media, a criminal offense punishable by 20-year prison sentences.
Authorities have arrested and sentenced to long prison sentences other activists and bloggers under the penal code’s Article 258, which criminalizes “abusing democratic freedoms” to infringe on the interests of the state. Most independent bloggers in Vietnam, more commonly known as ‘Facebookers’, use Facebook as their platform of choice.
In February, Hanoi complained about what it referred to as “toxic” anti-government entries posted on Facebook and called on local and foreign companies to withdraw advertising from the site until they were taken down. (Multinationals Ford, Unilever and Yamaha Motor agreed to pull their ads from video-sharing site YouTube, according to news reports.)
Vietnam said after the April 26 meeting that Facebook agreed to cooperate with its censorship requests and would “prioritize requests from the ministry and other competent authorities in the country” to remove objectionable content, according to the statement.
The state-run Vietnam News Agency reported that “[Facebook] is also ready to help state agencies [to] know how to use Facebook to effectively disseminate the Party and state’s policies to the public.” Facebook could not be reached for comment on either statement.
But as Facebook grapples with how to respond globally to content like Wuttisan’s video, free-speech activists warn that repressive regional governments are seeking to extend the definition of “inappropriate” and “objectionable” material to include anti-government criticism.
Last year, Facebook launched what it referred to as an intiative for “civil courage online” in an effort to curb hate speech online. But the company has come under fire for what has been perceived as selective censorship for taking down posts that offend certain political constituencies, particularly on immigration debates, while leaving up others.
Facebook is not the only multinational media company that risks running afoul of what certain Southeast Asian governments deem inappropriate. Indonesia’s largest Internet service provider, state-owned Telekom Indonesia, blocked access to Netflix over concerns that violent and adult content might violate the predominantly-Muslim country’s strict laws on moral decency.
As Internet penetration rates rise exponentially across Southeast Asia, so too are market opportunities. In 2016, the number of Internet users rose by more than 30% across the region. Almost half of the region’s population is now thought to be active online. In most Southeast Asian countries Facebook dominates the social media market.
As of January this year, the number of monthly active Facebook users rose to over 300 million, according to international technology agencies WeAreSocial and Hootsuite. The figure accounts for just under half of the region’s entire population and almost one-sixth of all Facebook users worldwide.
While a chit-chat entertainment tool for many users, in more heavily censored countries social media has become a present-day form of samizdat, allowing citizens to circumvent state-controlled media and official suppression of free speech.
That’s particularly true in countries like Thailand and Vietnam, both ruled by repressive authoritarian regimes. Days after tanks rolled through Bangkok in May 2014 to enforce a democracy-suspending military coup, the country’s soldier-seized information technology ministry temporarily blocked Facebook to dissuade anti-junta rallies.
Facebook has since obliged junta requests to remove content deemed as offensive to the Thai royal family, a criminal offense under strict lese majeste laws that allow for 15-year prison terms. A growing number of Thais now languish in prison for their anti-royal social media activities.
In June 2014, after communal riots broke out in the Myanmar central city of Mandalay, Myanmar’s government blocked Facebook for several days. The Malaysian government announced in 2014 that it was investigating ways to block Facebook pages, though the communication and multimedia minister commented at the time that the move would be “radical and quite impossible.”
Only China, Iran and North Korea maintain complete blocks on Facebook. Most countries, meanwhile, lack the technology to enforce such a block without unplugging the internet altogether. Southeast Asian states typically prosecute netizens under cybercrime or anti-state laws for social media content deem by authorities as objectionable.
Yet Facebook remains a powerful democratizing tool. When Vietnam temporarily blocked Facebook in May 2016 after protests spread across the country over a toxic industrial spill that polluted coastal areas, many Vietnamese netizens used proxy services and virtual private network (VPN) systems to circumvent the government’s block.
Facebook was thus still used to mobilize unprecedented protests against the environmental disaster and Hanoi’s perceived as lacking response.
Free speech and pro-democracy activists worry that as Southeast Asia becomes more financially important to Facebook, the social media giant is starting to bend to the will of repressive governments to maintain and grow its lucrative market positions.
Facebook has quickly expanded its regional operations and corporate presence. Repressive Singapore serves as Facebook’s Asia-Pacific headquarters for operations. The company opened corporate offices in Indonesia in 2014, in Thailand in 2015, and in Malaysia and the Philippines last year.
Southeast Asia is also one of the world’s fastest growing markets for business advertising on social media generally, an important part of publicly listed Facebook’s profit strategy. In the third quarter of 2016, Facebook’s advertising revenue rose by 59% year on year, with net income surging from US$896 million to US$2.38 billion over the period.
Last year it was reported that Facebook has been quietly developing software that would allow third-parties to censor posts from appearing in news feeds in specific geographic areas, a move critics say is patently designed to placate the Chinese government. China, the world’s largest social media market, has blocked Facebook since 2009.
Mark Zuckerberg, the social media company’s co-founder and chief executive, is known to have courted senior Chinese officials in recent years, including a meeting with president Xi Jinping in September 2015. It remains unclear, however, the software’s stage of development and whether it will be offered to Beijing in exchange for market access.
Should it be successfully developed and granted to China, free speech advocates fear other Asian governments will also demand access to the censorship tool. That would potentially allow Facebook to distance itself from the censorship process while providing information ministries with greater capacities to suppress Facebook content they deem as unfit for public circulation.