The Facebook Inc. logo is displayed for a photograph on an Apple Inc. iPhone in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Indonesia Threatens to Ban Facebook Over Fake News, Privacy

(Bloomberg) -- An Indonesian cabinet member has threatened to shut down Facebook Inc. if there is any evidence the personal data of citizens is being harvested or the social media giant fails to crack down on "fake news" during upcoming elections.

Amid continuing fallout over revelations the data of 50 million Facebook users was obtained by a firm that helped U.S. President Donald Trump’s campaign, there’s growing fears in Indonesia that its presidential race could be corrupted. With the contest set to kick off within months, Communications Minister Rudiantara has voiced concerns that individuals or organized groups could exploit social media platforms in a bid to influence the outcome.

"If I have to shut them down, then I will do it," Rudiantara said in an interview on Friday at his residence in Jakarta, noting Indonesia had earlier blocked the messaging app, Telegram. "I did it. I have no hesitation to do it again."

The warning extends beyond Facebook to other platforms including Twitter Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s Google, which owns YouTube, and a host of other social media companies. Both Twitter and Google have previously agreed to work with the government to monitor content.

Facebook said it was committed to protecting people’s information, preventing abuse and giving users more control over their data. It’s rolling out various initiatives around election integrity, it said in an email. A Twitter spokesperson said the company would not comment on the Indonesian government’s initiatives, noting in an email it had government and law enforcement reporting channels for illegal content. Google did not immediately responded to requests for comment.

A country of 260 million people and Southeast Asia’s largest economy, Indonesia is a prolific user of social media and boasts more than 115 million Facebook users. Rudiantara’s warning comes amid a crackdown in Indonesia on the use of social media to publish fake news and hate speech. Both Malaysia and Singapore unveiled plans to tackle fake news last month.

The communications minister said he had contacted Facebook representatives in Indonesia to seek assurances that no Indonesian user’s data was among the cache harvested by Cambridge Analytica. Facebook indicated it would respond this week to his request, he said.

Australia’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, Timothy Pilgrim, confirmed on March 20 his office had also sought to clarify with Facebook "whether any personal information of Australians was involved" in the scandal.

Severe Penalties

Along with other social media platforms that fail to comply with a 2016 decree on the protection of personal information, Facebook could face severe penalties, said Rudiantara, who like many Indonesians uses one name. "There are administrative sanctions. I can issue the warning letter to them. There will also be criminal sanctions," he said.

Facebook employees could face up to 12 years in jail and a fine of up to 12 billion rupiah ($873,000), he said. "I want an undertaking that there were no Indonesian Facebook users whose information or data was used by Cambridge Analytica," he said. "If that is the case, I can chase them, ask the police."

The comments come as President Joko Widodo is set to seek re-election in a campaign that begins in September ahead of the first round of voting in April next year. Widodo, known as Jokowi, is himself an avid user of social media with almost 10 million Twitter followers. He has also been the target of hoaxes, including having to fend off claims he is a communist.

The communications minister said he’s worried about the potential for domestic and external forces using personal information obtained via social media to target individual voters in Indonesia’s elections. He’s also concerned about the use of social media to spread fake news as a way of exerting influence over the electorate, as it’s alleged Russia did in the 2016 U.S. poll.

"I have to watch out, whether it’s internal from within the country or outside of the country," Rudiantara said. "But the most important thing is we have to look at controls for platforms."

Social media was already being used to spread fake news and influence the elections, he said, citing a post on Twitter that claimed he and Widodo had conspired with Chinese President Xi Jinping to win the next election. Rudiantara denies the claim.

The communications minister said he has a simple message for Facebook and other social media companies: "If you are not able to manage your platform to support the stability of Indonesia that means your intention to be in Indonesia is not for business, it’s for something else."

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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