Internet censorship to be tightened in Vietnam
The Vietnamese parliament wants to pass a network security law that will force the deletion of unwanted content. Large Internet companies such as Facebook and Google appear to be cooperating with the government on censorship so as not to jeopardise their market access.
Vietnam is an economically attractive production location and provider of digital services. Despite a restrictive one-party regime, the country’s Internet policy has so far been relatively liberal. However, a law on network security is intended to considerably tighten monitoring on the Internet. The treaty obligations towards the World Trade Organization and the European Union are not being observed, as the free trade agreement between the EU and Vietnam, freedom of the press and informational self-determination are established.
This is of little interest to the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security: national security demands greater access to the Internet, they say. The government must know who is publishing “slanderous and treacherous messages in social media”. The Vietnamese parliament is currently debating a new law that provides for extensive intervention on the Internet. The assumption is considered certain.
Before the 12th Party Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), which took place at the beginning of 2016, network policy and censorship played only a subordinate role. Facebook was officially banned, but with just one app and a few clicks it could be accessed easily and was part of everyday life in Hanoi’s coffee houses. The Vietnamese government did not want to deter foreign investors. The then Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung believed that it was up to the government and the ministries “to publish their own version of the truth punctually and convincingly” and not to censor criticism. In 2016 he was forced into retirement and replaced by the traditionalist Nguyen Xuan Phuc. There is no doubt that even under Dung’s government there was no freedom of the press and the Internet, but the new government is now increasingly trying to silence dissident voices on the Internet. Within a few weeks of the party conference, agreements were reached with Facebook, Google and Youtube to delete “toxic”, i.e. critical, contributions.
Currently around 55 of the 92 million Vietnamese have Internet access, and the trend is rising. Large Internet companies are therefore entering into agreements with the government so as not to jeopardise their access to the growing Vietnamese market. Google and Facebook claim to only delete profiles in Vietnam on the basis of their own “community standards”. A closer look reveals that in practice they were quick to delete user accounts that the Vietnamese government claimed were offensive or defamatory.
Founded in 2017 by the Vietnamese government, Force 47 searches the Internet for dissident and critical content. In the first half of 2017, according to Google, the Vietnamese authority called for “the removal of over 3,000 Youtube videos, mainly criticizing the Communist Party and government officials. At the end of 2017, the Vietnamese Information Minister boasted that out of 5,000 videos with “bad or toxic content” reported by the Vietnamese authorities, 4,500 had been deleted. Facebook, he added, had removed 159 “anti-government accounts” upon request.
The Vietnamese government can also exert pressure thanks to its market power. State-owned companies in Vietnam contribute almost 30 percent to the annual gross national product and employ about ten percent of all workers. The government can prohibit these companies from cooperating with platforms that do not want to cooperate with the state. If Google or Facebook were to cross the line, advertising revenue would be lost.
It seems that they are cooperating so as not to risk exclusion from the market, as in China. There, an even more repressive cyber security law obliges Internet operators to comply with comprehensive restrictions that Facebook, Twitter and Google did not want to comply with, which is why the services were banned in China. With almost 700 million Internet users, the Chinese market is now by far the largest in the world. While the big Western Internet companies are currently doing everything in their power to soften the Chinese leadership, the government in Vietnam apparently aimed to prevent Vietnam from being lost as a market by its own Vietnamese law – in the case of Facebook and Google this seems to have been successful.
The government’s cooperation with Internet companies is at the expense of network and press freedom. Since the 12th Party Congress, the situation has become increasingly delicate for opposition members who oppose the one-party state online. According to The 88 Project, a US organization that collects data on political prisoners in Vietnam, 42 people were arrested in 2017 for online publications. In 2016 there were 14 and in 2015 only eight. In addition, much longer prison sentences were imposed.