Vietnam Pushes ‘totalitarian’ Control Over Free Speech Online

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With a so-called cybersecurity law that took effect this year, Vietnam is increasingly censoring criticism of the communist government in an attempt to smother dissent online.

Passed in June, the law demands that service providers like Google and Facebook either take the initiative to censor “toxic information” posted by users or turn the users’ identities over to the government. Companies may also be asked to store customer data in Vietnam, which would heavily undermine users’ privacy and security. The law says little about improving cybersecurity itself.

This law affects not only journalists and members of the political opposition, but also the 64 million ordinary Vietnamese citizens who use the internet, 53 million of whom are on social media. Human Rights Watch called the law draconian, and its reporting restrictions have drawn criticism from Daniel Bastard of Reporters Without Borders, who called them “a totalitarian model of information control.”

Tightening control over internet services

Vietnam’s efforts to regulate online speech are not new; in 2013 the government banned the posting of anti-government material, and in 2016 the Ministry of Information and Communications outlined how online services had to cooperate with the Vietnamese government to take such content off their platforms.

This has helped the Vietnamese regime crack down on more online dissidents and human rights activists in recent years. According to the Diplomat, Google and Facebook in Vietnam have removed 3,367 postings containing “sensitive” content upon the request of the Vietnamese government. Facebook also removed over 600 accounts deemed as dissenters.

The new law takes this a step further, requiring digital services to set up data centers in Vietnam and to take proactive steps to censor Vietnamese citizens who are perceived to be posting “toxic,” or anti-government, content online. The biggest change in this case is that companies are now held responsible for taking content down by themselves, instead of purely reacting to government requests.

Since the law took effect, however, Facebook has found itself in hot water with the Vietnamese government, having allowed users to post critical comments on its platform. Facebook’s most recent transparency report mentions that it cooperated with two out of 12 data requests from Vietnam. The cybersecurity law is vague on how it punishes companies, which gives the government complete freedom over how much Facebook or any infringing service provider must pay.

Infringement on human rights and freedom of speech

Since the new law was passed, human rights organizations and free speech advocates have raised the alarm over laws seen as intended to incite fear and uncertainty among the masses.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told the Guardian that the new cybersecurity law was among the first steps the Vietnamese government plans to take to “bring the internet under the same draconian controls that affect print media, TV and radio.”

Needless to say, this law will still heighten people’s ”fear about what they can say online, and uncertainty about what issues and statements will trigger arrests and prosecution.”

Pushback from the people

With surveillance and censorship both reaching China-like levels, and no guarantee that companies will keep their information secure, Vietnamese citizens have taken their data privacy and security into their own hands, using VPNs and encrypted messaging apps to secure their online activity and protect themselves from government surveillance.

While the cybersecurity law does not say much on improving the cybersecurity of its people, the introduction of this law has ironically spurred people to take their online privacy and security more seriously. As long as Vietnam blocks sites and platforms, people in Vietnam will find ways around the firewall; a significant number of internet users already know what a VPN is and have used one at least once a month.

As the Vietnamese regime insists on tightening its hold over the internet, the Vietnamese people are increasingly acting to keep their access to the internet private, secure, and free from the prying eyes of their government. But with even international internet giants now roped into complying with the government’s whims, access to the free internet will only get more difficult.

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