Vietnam’s authoritarian regime is clamping down on free speech, and Facebook is complying

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Starting next year, Vietnam will be able to prevent its citizens from seeing content on Facebook and YouTube (and by extension, Google) that the authorities perceive to be “anti-government.”

The new law, presented as a “cybersecurity” measure, is the latest in a series of government initiatives to stifle growing dissent within a population that has grown up using social media as a means of free expression.

Vietnam is not the only country to take such action. We’ve previously written about governments that push for greater control over their citizens’ speech and increasing censorship of sites that they believe would undermine government power. This trend only seems to be strengthening as countries seek to rein in the organizing power that social media has for the people who use it to voice their grievances.

“With the sweeping powers it grants the government to monitor online activity, this vote means there is now no safe place left in Vietnam for people to speak freely,” Clare Algar, Amnesty International’s director of global operations, said in response to the new law.

Facebook estimates that more than half the population in Vietnam uses its services. The country has the ninth largest number of active Facebook users, at 46 million, according to We Are Social’s 2017 report. Vietnam’s economic hub, Ho Chi Minh City, ranks 10th among cities worldwide with almost 10 million users. With over half of all Vietnamese active on Facebook, government control over what’s posted would prove useful in silencing voices that seek to challenge or criticize current leadership.

Vietnam is no stranger to controlling freedom of expression among the masses, but it has had to step up efforts to catch up with social media platforms. Facebook and Google already have something of a close relationship with the Vietnamese government, having complied to some extent with takedown requests of posts and videos from the Vietnamese government. The new cyber law would hasten the takedown request process to just a day.

Censorship efforts in the country seem to be escalating this year—in the space of a week in late September, a court in Vietnam sentenced two people to jail for posting “anti-government” messages on Facebook. The authorities have also heaped pressure on internet giants to start storing user data in data centers in the country, meaning that any data stored would have to be turned over if the government demanded.

With sweeping online surveillance and censorship quickly developing into a reality for Vietnamese citizens, many have sought solutions to secure or encrypt their communications to protect themselves from government surveillance, using VPNs, proxies, and encrypted messaging apps to secure their online activity.

Such tools are, rather ironically, very popular among people who live and work in authoritarian countries like China and Vietnam who need to unblock certain blocked sites such as Google or Facebook to conduct business or to find academic articles deemed politically “skewed” in the eyes of the government. Vietnam already seems familiar with this, with 25% of all internet users in Vietnam claiming to have used a VPN at least once in a month’s time.

The government, however, is savvy to this, which makes the selection of a security or privacy app critical to those who live under its heavy-handed rule. A cat-and-mouse chase has started to develop, with a government that is eager to catch and control its people, and citizens who try and escape the state’s clutches by using encryption software to protect their online activity from mass surveillance.

Vietnam’s descent into an increasingly controlled internet seems inevitable, but its citizens are fighting back, using digital privacy tools and social media to try and regain their online freedoms.

One Response to “Vietnam’s authoritarian regime is clamping down on free speech, and Facebook is complying

  • Only way to go now is a VPN. No matter you’re in Vietnam or elsewhere.

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