Facebook is in violation of a Vietnamese new cybersecurity law by allowing its users to post content critical of the communist government on its platform, the Ministry of Information and Communication announced on Wednesday of last week.
The news came just days after the law went into effect on Jan. 1. The new legislation requires internet companies to comply with government demands to remove user-posted material it doesn’t like.
The law also stipulates that information technology companies—Facebook and Google for instance—may be required to set up local offices and store customer data domestically, a feature which human rights advocates worry might make it easier for the government to track and charge dissidents for their online activities.
This new legislation follows a pattern of increasing digital scrutiny by the Vietnamese government. In late 2017, the government launched Force 47, a 10,000-person cyber unit that trawls the internet and monitors dissenting views that run contrary to the official line of the communist government.
The cybersecurity law, and subsequent accusations against Facebook, underscore the crucial role the platform has played in elevating the work of Vietnamese activists who face a tightly government-controlled media atmosphere in a country where all public protests are strictly banned. But, by that same token, it serves as a stark reminder of just how dangerous speaking out on the platform has been.
In May of 2018, an activist was sentenced to four and a half years for writing “anti-state propaganda” on Facebook. In September of 2018, a Vietnamese court sentenced an activist to spend two years and three months in jail based on anti-government posts he had created on Facebook. These cases are not unique.
As of April 2018, there were nearly 100 prisoners of conscience in Vietnamese jails, according to Amnesty International. It’s unclear just how many of those prisoners ended up in cells because of internet activism.
One particularly well-known dissident caught up in Vietnam’s digital crackdown is blogger/activist Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, more commonly known as “Mother Mushroom,” her online moniker. In October 2016, Quynh was sentenced to 10 years in prison for her outspoken online protests around environmental degradation, civil rights and chinese influence in Vietnam. Quynh was released and sent to the United States in October of 2018.
While the cybersecurity law may force Facebook to cooperate with the Vietnamese government in new ways, the company has, in the past, been criticized by rights advocates for being relatively compliant regarding the regime’s requests to purge dissenting material, much to the chagrin of dissidents who at times saw profiles or posts disappear with no warning from the company.
The fact of Facebook’s cooperation with the Vietnamese government, and the risks that have accompanied posts on the platform have led to a migration of dissenting voices from Facebook to other, more secure, social media options.
One such platform, Minds, a US-based open-source social media site has seen an influx of Vietnamese users who see their platform as a way to protect themselves against the prying eyes of government.