Vietnamese authorities mandate Google, Facebook and other Internet companies to assist in online censorship

Viet Tan Briefing

April 11, 2012

By Duy Hoang, Angelina Huynh, Trinh Nguyen

Summary

The Government of Vietnam is updating its Internet management policies with grave implications for netizens and the foreign and domestic companies that provide Internet services to the country’s 30 million online users.

Under a draft decree expected to be issued by the prime minister in June, all Internet users are required to use their real names and are forbidden from engaging in a wide range of activities. Internet companies will be compelled to help the government enforce the expanded online restrictions.

The biggest change affects foreign Internet companies. They will be subject to the provisions of the new decree and may be required to relocate their data centers and establish local offices in Vietnam. These new rules could have serious consequences for companies such as Google and Facebook which have millions of Vietnamese users but are not physically located in the country.

The draft decree obtained by Viet Tan is titled “Decree on the Management, Provision, Use of Internet Services and Information Content Online.” Like many government directives in Vietnam, the language in this document is vague and ill-defined, leading to multiple interpretations and possible arbitrary implementation by authorities.

This new policy will supercede Decree 97/2008/ND-CP which was promulgated by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung in August 2008.

Primary responsibility for policing the Internet will remain with the Ministry of Information and Communications and the Ministry of Public Security. While the decree is officially a government document it appears the Vietnamese Communist Party is also involved in formulating the internet controls. In addition to various government agencies, the Communist Party’s Secretariat and Central Committee are on the distribution list for the decree.

Key provisions of the decree

The following are some of the provisions from the new regulations that affect Internet freedom in Vietnam:

1. Real user data

Internet users “are strictly prohibited” from providing fictitious personal data. The ramifications for this regulation is that citizen journalists will not be able to write under pseudonyms, effectively prohibiting all forms of anonymous blogging and discussion.

2. Forbidden online activities

The draft decree lists a wide range of activities that are forbidden over the Internet. These prohibitions include “abusing the Internet” to oppose the socialist government, “exposing government secrets” and “spreading slanderous information” harmful to organizations and individuals.

The draconian language essentially makes its illegal to post anything online critical of the Vietnamese communist party and state, its policies or leaders.

3. Foreign Internet companies

Companies based outside of Vietnam providing “online social networking platforms” such as blogging, discussion forums, chat and similar services are compelled to “provide information and cooperate with Vietnamese government agencies” to address activities prohibited by the decree (e.g. criticizing the government).

The draft language appears to require foreign internet companies to relocate their data centers to Vietnam. From our reading, it is unclear whether this is a requirement (i) due to offering a localized service in Vietnam or (ii) only after opening and operating a local office in Vietnam.

The reporting in Vietnamese state media, however, is more clear cut. According to recent articles in Thanh Nien (Youths) and Dan Tri (Intellect), foreign companies have to establish local offices and presumably house their data centers inside Vietnam.

In short, the Hanoi authorities are stepping up efforts to force foreign Internet companies to operate under Vietnamese law.

4. Requirements for websites and blogs

All websites providing news articles must be approved by authorities and adhere to existing local press laws. Website administrators must possess the technical skills to operate their sites according to the requirements of the decree, which includes reporting any instances of prohibited online activities to authorities.

Websites and blogs that do not adhere to the regulations can be shutdown by the Ministry of Information and Communications.

According to the proposed decree, personal blogs do not have to be registered but they do need to publicize the name and contact information of the individual responsible. Bloggers are restricted from engaging in any “prohibited online activities” and will be held personally liable for all the published content on their blogs.

Policy implications

1. Internet freedom and corporate social responsibility

To date, no major foreign internet company has chosen to operate data centers in Vietnam. This prudent business decision has allowed companies such as Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and Facebook to avoid complying with Hanoi government censors while still attracting millions of Vietnamese internet users.

Requiring foreign companies to relocate data centers or even individual servers to Vietnam harms businesses by causing logistical and technical challenges. At worst, it would discourage companies from operating in Vietnam to begin with, leaving end users with less choice.

There is no reason to voluntarily comply with the new Internet restrictions in Vietnam. We urge Internet companies to oppose this decree and continue providing online platforms to the Vietnamese market in ways that are consistent with their corporate social responsibility.

2. Rule by law

The new Internet regulation is another instance of “rule by law” in Vietnam. According to the draft decree, people “are allowed access to all Internet services, except those services which are forbidden under the law.” This circular reasoning is the Hanoi government’s effort to give legal justification to arbitrary restrictions on freedom of speech.

3. Free trade issues

Internet censorship is also a trade issue. By placing restrictions on the business practices of outside (primarily American) Internet companies, the Vietnamese government is creating trade barriers. This could have implications under the World Trade Organization of which Vietnam is a member, and for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) of which the United States is negotiating with Vietnam and other countries.

Conclusion

Cited by Reporters Sans Frontieres as an “enemy of the Internet,” the Government of Vietnam is consistently ranked by international human rights groups as one of the worst offenders of internet freedom.

Hanoi’s cascade of Internet censorship extends from online to offline: harassing and detaining bloggers; spreading malware to spy on Internet users; blocking access to Facebook and other social networking sites; and orchestrating hacker attacks against Vietnamese-language websites hosted outside the country.

With the strong desire of people in Vietnam to go online for information and networking, the Hanoi government’s policies to shutter access indicate a pattern of sweeping Internet restrictions that are difficult to implement in practice, and harm both technology providers as well as end users. The recent example of Vietnamese authorities requiring “Green Dam”-like monitoring software to be installed in all public spaces in Hanoi, produced few, if any compliance.

With the Vietnamese government aiming to extend its internet censorship, now is the time for human rights advocates and netizens everywhere to support internet freedom in Vietnam.


About Viet Tan

The mission of Viet Tan is to overcome dictatorship, build the foundation for a sustainable democracy, and demand justice and human rights for the Vietnamese people through a nonviolent struggle based on civic participation.

For more information on Viet Tan’s internet freedom campaign, please visit www.viettan.org/internetfreedom.


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