Censorship fears grow in Vietnam as cybersecurity law looms

Motorcyclists wearing protective masks sit in traffic in Hanoi. Vietnam is tightening its grip on Internet freedoms by rolling out a highly controversial cybersecurity law that requires Internet companies to remove content deemed ‘anti-state’, mere months ahead of the country’s National Congress in January, which gathers only every five years. — Bloomberg

As Vietnam prepares for its National Congress in January – a time known for clampdowns of government critics – it is also rolling out a controversial cybersecurity bill.

The coming months promise to be a highly sensitive period in Vietnam, with journalists and activists fearing increasing censorship.

Vietnam is tightening its grip on Internet freedoms by rolling out a highly controversial cybersecurity law that requires Internet companies to remove content deemed “anti-state”, mere months ahead of the country’s National Congress in January, which gathers only every five years.

The legislation essentially demands that Facebook and Google set up local offices and servers in Vietnam if they wish to continue operating in the country. The tech giants have thus far refused to comply with the request, but they have been forced to respond to censorship pressures nonetheless.

Although the law technically went into effect on Jan 1, 2019, businesses were given 12 months to comply, and the government still has not published a draft decree with the official guidelines. It is expected to be published before the National Congress in the coming weeks or months, when the law will show its full effect.

Carl Thayer, a South-East Asia expert at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said there has been a rise in arrests since the cybersecurity law was first introduced in January 2019 and that “it is likely there will be a spike in arrests in the coming months as the congress draws near”.

Analysts say clampdowns on activists and journalists are a regular occurrence ahead of the National Congress, Vietnam’s most significant political event, where a five-year economic plan and leadership changes are decided by the Communist party.

Jeff Paine, a spokesperson for the Asia Internet Coalition, also worries the cybersecurity law could derail one of the most promising digital economies in the world and urged the government to repeal the law.

“The control on data flows and limitations on freedom of expression will stifle local entrepreneurs and businesses, and it also risks driving foreign investment away from Vietnam to neighbouring countries with regulatory regimes that support the global digital economy, technological innovation and cross-border data flows,” Paine said.

Rights organisations regularly criticise the Vietnamese government for being intolerant of dissent and censoring local media. On Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index, Vietnam only ranks 175 out of 180 countries.

In March, Facebook shared a statement with dpa revealing the intense government pressure to regulate content on the website.

State-run telecommunications companies took the social media site’s local servers offline, slowing traffic to a crawl, until Facebook allowed content deemed “anti-state” to be taken down.

A Facebook spokesperson said the platform would have been blocked entirely in Vietnam if it hadn’t given in to the government’s demands.

According to Google’s transparency report, the search engine also received an increasing number of government requests for the removal of articles from July 2017.

The company did not respond to further requests, however.

As a result of the measures, rights activists say they are shifting to Twitter and other social media platforms as fears grow over censorship and arrests linked to Facebook posts deemed anti-state.

“Many activists were angry and disappointed about Facebook’s decision to allow censorship of political content in Vietnam,” said Thao Dinh, a prominent rights activist in Vietnam. “I saw many people from the activist circle move to other platforms. Many started using Twitter as their second social media platform, even though the political community on Twitter is not yet as strong and vibrant as it is on Facebook,” she said.

Thao added that she felt safer expressing her opinions on Twitter and that the company has been actively verifying the accounts of many activists, journalists and NGO workers.

A Twitter representative said the platform’s verification process is currently on hold and that it has not received any requests for content moderation from the Vietnamese government.

Exactly how many Vietnamese are signing up to Twitter as a result of Facebook’s censorship is not known, though Facebook’s user numbers still dwarf those of other platforms, with more than 40 million users accessing the site per day – one of the highest rates of any country in South-East Asia. – dpa

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