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Facebook's data woes in Southeast Asia

Wesley Rahn
April 6, 2018

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, Facebook is being forced to answer tough questions in Southeast Asian countries on whether its platform is being abused and if citizens' data has been misused.

Mark Zuckerberg Facebook Indonesien Joko Widodo Jakarta 13.10.
Image: Getty Images/ Oscar Siagian

After the latest turn in the ongoing Cambridge Analytica user data scandal, Indonesia's Ministry of Communications and Information Technology said Friday it would investigate Facebook over possible violations of Indonesian privacy law.

In a statement released Wednesday, Facebook revised the amount of its data unlawfully collected by Cambridge Analytica to 87 million users, including data from 1.1 million Indonesian users that could have been "improperly shared" with the Britain-based political consulting firm.

Earlier this week, Indonesia's minister of communication and information technology, Rudiantara, threatened to block Facebook if evidence emerged that Indonesian citizens' data had been unlawfully collected or if the platform is being used to spread false information ahead of a national election campaign season beginning in September.

Minister Rudiantara  who uses a single name  told DW that the ministry contacted Facebook after the Cambridge Analytica case broke out in March to find out if Indonesian users were among the millions of Facebook users whose data were improperly used.

Read more: 

India sends notice to Facebook over possible election manipulation

Facebook: 'The truth has been lost'

"Indeed there are indications of Indonesian Facebook user data being part of Cambridge Analytica," said Rudiantara, without going into detail.

The minister also said that data protection laws would apply and penalties for "inappropriate use of data" could range up to $870,000 (€710,250) for convicted Facebook representatives in Indonesia.

"We have also begun working together with Indonesian police in order to anticipate the need for law enforcement as soon as possible," said Rudiantara.

In a statement shared with DW by its Jakarta-based public relations firm, Facebook said that it was taking "significant steps" to reduce access to data through apps and that it was "continuing to work" with privacy and information commissioners all over the world, including Indonesia. There are more than 115 million Facebook users in the country.

Bloomberg News quoted Rudiantara on Monday as saying "If I have to shut them down, then I will do it."

Facebook reveals more affected in data breach

Stolen data for Duterte?

On Thursday, the South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported that Cambridge Analytica's parent company, Strategic Communications Laboratories (SCL Group), helped Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte get elected in 2016 by "rebranding" him as crime fighter.

The archived SCL Group copy obtained by the SCMP said that "the incumbent client was widely perceived as both kind and honorable," and although Duterte's team reportedly thought this image would sway voters, the excerpt added that, "SCL used the cross-cutting issue of crime to rebrand the client as a strong, no-nonsense man of action, who would appeal to the true values of the voters."

Although the strategic use of voter data and preferences is an integral part of political campaigning, it was not made clear if the information on voter preferences obtained by SCL Group in the Philippines was illegally obtained from social media sites like Facebook.

However, as part of its statement on Wednesday, Facebook said that 1.17 million Philippine Facebook users may have had data improperly shared with Cambridge Analytica.

Infografik Facebook Cambridge Analytica ENG

Singapore fighting fake news

In Singapore, after the Cambridge Analytica data scandal broke, government inquires were held into how Facebook protects user data and combats the spread of fake news.

In Singapore, Facebook's Asia-Pacific vice-president of public policy Simon Milner sat before the "Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods" on March 22.

During the hearing, Singapore's Minister of Law Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam pressed Milner on the degree to which Facebook could be trusted by the Singapore to tell the truth, to apply internal guidelines and if Milner was evading questions on the potential issue of Facebook data security in Singapore.

Read more:

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg admits 'mistakes' in Cambridge Analytica scandal

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"To what extent can we take seriously that you can be completely trusted to apply your internal guidelines?" Shanmugam said in a video recording of the hearing posted on a Singaporean government media website.

"We are looking at our national security, and by looking at your [Facebook] answers elsewhere, you have confirmed you will not take down something simply because it is false. You will take it down if there is a legal obligation on you," the minister said, adding that Facebook "did not want to be regulated."

The minister had been asking Milner about his thoughts on Facebook's testimony before the US Senate Intelligence Committee and specifically the comments of US Senator Mark Warren, who said he was "disappointed" in Facebook's answers.

Read more: What role did Cambridge Analytica play in the Brexit vote?

"It's very simple. The same thing can happen in Singapore – a serious foreign interference," said Shanmugam. "If a very senior official in the United States feels you are not being cooperative, how can we expect that you will be cooperative with us?"

Singapore has been working on enacting a new set of "fake news" laws, and domestic media is tightly controlled in the country. It ranks 151 out of 180 on Reporter's Without Borders World Press Freedom Index for "intolerant government and self-censorship." There are fears that Singapore will use "fake news" laws as a tool to quash dissent.

Human Rights Watch declined an invitation to the hearing and issued a statement that the hearing was a "media event aimed to showcase those who agree with the government's views and criticize those who do not."

The hearing was also criticized by MARUAH, a Singapore-based human rights organization issued a statement saying the committee was "overly focused, through a process of intense interrogation, on showing that the witnesses were propagators of 'falsehoods' as online content providers."

The power of the platform

Cambridge Analytica's use of voter data has elicited controversy in the way it combines privacy breaches via a platform like Facebook and how it uses information for what it describes as "influence operations" and "psychological warfare."

And aside from being a source of public data, Facebook has also been criticized in Southeast Asia as being used as a tool for conflict.

In March, the UN blamed Facebook for playing a leading role in spreading hate speech against Rohingya in the Myanmar conflict.

Founder Mark Zuckerberg responded to the Myanmar allegations in an interview with the news website VOX, saying that "people were trying to use our tools in order to incite real harm," and that Facebook had developed systems to "stop those messages from going through."

Human rights groups in Myanmar were reported as criticizing Zuckerberg's response as not reflecting how the platform work and said the systems were too slow in stopping the spread of hate speech.

As the extent of the Facebook's data breach is revealed further and the Facebook continues to play an essential role in political discourse, in Southeast Asia and around the world, we may only be witnessing the beginning of how the social network is transforming from being a passive platform to becoming an active participant.

Additional reporting by Rizki Nugraha.