Vietnam: Free Speech Compromised for Facebook AccessApr 23, 2020
A Reuters article reveals Facebook’s recent compromise with the Vietnamese authorities to restrict free speech in exchange for stable access to Facebook from Vietnam. Facebook, in an emailed statement, confirmed to Reuters that it had “reluctantly” complied with the Vietnamese government’s request to “restrict access to content which it has deemed to be illegal.” The compliance appears to be the result of a 7-week shutdown of Facebook’s local servers in Vietnam, a deliberate restriction allegedly carried out by state-owned telecommunications companies that made the website unusable at times.
The Reuters article explicitly cited the censorship of “anti-state” posts as one key change in Facebook’s content policy in Vietnam.
The terms “illegal contents” and “anti-state posts” is reminiscent of legal provisions that Vietnam has adopted to constrain freedom of expression, which have been criticized by international human rights groups as dangerously vague. These include the Cybersecurity Law, in effect from 2019, which punishes criticism of the government online, and obliges internet companies such as Facebook and Google to store data domestically. Personal data of users, upon the Vietnamese government’s request, must be handed over. The 2015 Penal Code also criminalizes online content critical of the government with such charges as “anti-state propaganda” (Article 117) and “abuse of democratic freedoms to infringe on state interests” (Article 331).
Widespread usage of these laws has made Vietnam one of the world’s most severe violators of freedom of expression. Reporters Without Borders ranks Vietnam 175th out of 180 countries in its 2020 World Press Freedom Index.
Most recently, authorities of Hau Giang province arrested Dinh Thi Thu Thuy on April 18 for "posting and sharing hundreds of anti-state contents on Facebook," allegedly violating Article 117. This charge may lead to a prison sentence of up to 20 years. According to Amnesty International, around 10% of prisoners of conscience in Vietnam were put in jail in relation to their Facebook activities.
Facebook’s complicity in the abuse of free speech goes counter to international human rights standards. The Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011, urges businesses to “avoid causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their own activities” and “seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationship” (Principle 13).
Facebook is one, if not the only platform where Vietnamese people could openly, peacefully and effectively communicate their opinions and reflect on socio-political issues. The importance and popularity of Facebook has especially surged in the time of COVID-19 so as to foster public access to information and civil participation, which consequently has led to increased repression of free speech. On April 2, the police of Can Tho city arrested Ma Phung Ngoc Tu under Article 331 of the Penal Code. The Police accuse him of posting and sharing 14 posts on Facebook about COVID-19 and “bad-mouthing” the regime.