A President Office’s official claimed on Wednesday that the Burmese government has reached an agreement with social media website Facebook to monitor hate speech that could instigate racial and religious violence in the country.
Zaw Htay, director of the President’s Office, said that government officials, IT experts from a Silicon Valley company, and three Facebook representatives based in Washington, Ireland and Asia held a conference call recently to discuss the issue of monitoring hate speech.
“The first part of the agreement is to prevent instigation of riots and moderate posts in accordance to Facebook’s policies,” Zaw Htay said. “We also discussed monitoring, but not in a way that would impose restrictions on Facebook users.
“They recommended enacting a cyber law to moderate the use of social media, but that may take some time,” he added.
On 1 July, riots broke out in Mandalay because of rumours circulating on Facebook that a Buddhist girl had been raped by two Muslim teashop owners – an allegation that has not been substantiated. Two people – a Buddhist man and a Muslim man – were subsequently murdered in mob killings.
Zaw Htay said that on the second day of the riots, the government reached out to Facebook, which assisted them in deactivating accounts believed to be spreading hate speech.
“We regularly talk to governments around the world to address questions or concerns that have about our policies, just as we have with the Government of Myanmar,” said the Facebook spokeswoman in an email. “As we have explained to them, Facebook does not permit hate speech and will not tolerate any content that attacks others based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or medical condition.”
She added that no proposed cyber law was suggested to the Burmese government.
“We did not suggest anything – we simply talked about our approach to content that violates our terms and explained how the process works,” she said.
Ko Ni, a High Court attorney in Rangoon, said that the individuals instigating riots on the social media, if found, can be charged under existing laws.
“The instigators can be charged sufficiently under the existing laws but the problem here is that they are not being charged,” said Ko Ni. “Not only on Facebook, but some people were instigating riots in person right on the streets, distributing leaflets – but none of them were charged.”
While Thaung Su Nyein, the CEO of IT consultant company Information Matrix, as well as the editor-in-chief of 7Day Daily, lauded the government’s efforts to stop hate speech from circulating on the Internet, but noted that he was concerned about any “ulterior motives”.
“The government shouldn’t be allowed to use this as a tool to oppress or suppress dissent or a public voice or the media. So there are definitely some concerns that it might lead to that, and we have to be careful,” he said, adding that the government and civil society organisations should be working harder to educate the public not to engage in hate speech.
“I think it has the potential to be a positive step in getting rid of extremely foul language, extremely hateful speech, extremely offensive content – which, if it were written in English, would have been removed immediately or at least reported by users,” Thaung Su Nyein said. “If it can go in that direction, then I am all for it.”
According to statistics by the government’s Myanmar Post and Telecommunication, there are around 2.5 million Internet users in Burma including 1 million Facebook account holders.