HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam – Vietnam’s communist regime has increased pressure on political dissidents with a new cybersecurity law that forces technology companies like Facebook and Google to remove content critical of the government and to provide personal data of their users.
The law, in force since Jan. 1, impacts activists who use social media to express their discontent and call for protests amid the government’s iron-fisted control of the press.
“Social networks are the only means for ordinary people to express their views. I hope that companies like Facebook and Google do not accept government demands that violate fundamental human rights such as freedom of expression,” Anh Chi, a blogger and activist, told EFE.
Both Chi and other activists had already taken precautions in reaction to the growing repression in the country, which has more than 100 ideological and religious prisoners, and which routinely imprisons dissenters for their social media posts.
“The difference is that they now have a legal instrument to demand personal data of users from companies like Facebook or from an internet provider,” said Chi.
According to the law, companies must, among other things, store data related to its users’ professions, banking activities and health statuses, as well as all web content created by them in Vietnam.
They are also required to provide the government with this information upon request.
If a foreign company does not respect these conditions, the government can force it to open a local branch to continue operating, which would make it easier to control its data.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch denounced Hanoi’s policy for its devastating effect on freedom of expression.
The government justified the law as a means to control toxic information circulating on the network.
Facebook has 64 million users in Vietnam, a country of 92 million.
It was criticized this week by the Ministry of Information and Communication for failing to comply with their requests to delete critical content.
The company said it erased all illegal posts and added that all government requests are reviewed, and addressed keeping in mind terms of service and local laws.
For months, dissidents have accused the California firm of yielding to the government’s demands.
Singer Mai Khoi, one of the country’s most prominent critical voices, said in an October Washington Post article the accounts of many independent journalists and human rights defenders have been frozen.
“We risk losing the only space where we can speak freely,” she added.
Months before, 50 dissidents had sent a letter to Mark Zuckerberg accusing Facebook of cooperating with the communist authorities by deleting accounts and content.
According to the Vietnamese Ministry of Information and Communication, Facebook and Google (owner of Youtube) had deleted close to 3,367 publications with “poisonous” content, as well as 600 accounts by July 2017.
Although the regime tried to censor Facebook 10 years ago, the ability of users to circumvent the ban prompted Hanoi to shift gears and use the platform for its own propaganda.
A year ago, the government launched the Force 47, a military unit of 10,000 officers that seeks to combat “wrong views” on the internet.
In their quest to control the internet, high-ranking Communist officials proposed the creation of a social network of their own, following the example of Weibo in China, an unattainable target according to Chi.
“I don’t think that the government can successfully develop its own social network. Besides, the Vietnamese citizens would never trust that kind of platform. We know that it would be an instrument to control users rather than to provide a service,” said Chi.