People use laptops at a coffee shop in Hanoi. Rights activists have accused Facebook of bowing to pressure by Vietnam's government by agreeing to restrict posts by dissidents, setting a bad precedent for its global policies. (Photo: AFP)
International rights groups have condemned Facebook for caving in to the Vietnamese government’s order to restrict anti-state content by dissidents.
“Facebook has bowed to pressure by the government of Vietnam and agreed to restrict posts by dissidents, setting a bad precedent for both human rights and its global policies,” Human Rights Watch said, adding that the decision increases the likelihood of other content restrictions.
In recent months the government has disrupted access to the US-based giant company’s servers to slow access to its services as a way of making it remove or restrict content criticizing the government, the group said.
In February and March, Vietnam compelled internet service providers to take Facebook’s local cache servers offline, slowing access to Facebook’s platform and its services to a crawl. The servers were not put back online until it made a commitment to Vietnam to increase the censorship of "anti-state" posts for local users.
Human Rights Watch said a Facebook spokesperson admitted that the government “has instructed us to restrict access to content which it has deemed to be illegal in Vietnam. We believe freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and work hard to protect and defend this important civil liberty around the world. However, we have taken this action to ensure our services remain available and usable for millions of people in Vietnam, who rely on them every day.”
John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said Facebook has set a “terrible precedent” by caving in to the government of Vietnam’s “extortion.”
“Now other countries know how to get what they want from the company, to make them complicit in violating the right to free speech. It’s hard to see how Facebook can live up to its human rights obligations when it’s helping Vietnam censor free speech,” he said.
He warned that “this isn’t the end of the story: the government is going to make more demands in the future, and not just of Facebook.”
Foreign Ministry vice-spokesman Ngo Toan Thang said Vietnam's guidelines are to promote development of the internet and information and communication technology in support of the country's development and users’ needs.
Thang said foreign information and communication technology businesses should abide by Vietnamese laws and cooperate with the government in building a safe and healthy cyber environment. They must fully implement their tax and social responsibilities, he added.
“Facebook had committed itself to adhering to Vietnamese regulations. Vietnam will monitor how it implements that commitment in the future,” Thang said at a press conference in Hanoi.
Amnesty International said Facebook must immediately reverse its decision to censor posts deemed critical of Vietnam’s government.
"Facebook must base its content regulation on international human rights standards for freedom of expression, not on the arbitrary whims of a rights-abusing government,” it said, adding that the company “has a responsibility to respect freedom of expression by refusing to cooperate with these indefensible takedown requests.”
Father Pham Quang Long, a Facebooker followed by 33, 000 people, said Facebook has heavily censored “sensitive words” at the government’s request.
“We should move to Twitter, which is a popular social media in the West,” the priest from Ha Tinh province said on his Facebook.
Pope Francis uses Twitter to communicate in many languages and is followed by millions of people.
Sources said Tran Duc Thach, a former soldier, was arrested by police in Nghe An province on April 23 for “conducting activities to overthrow the people’s government.” Thach, 68, was accused of posting and sharing writings that distort the state’s policies to incite public disorder.
In 2009, Thach was arrested and sentenced to three years in jail for hanging banners with content critical of the government on a bridge in Hanoi.
Earlier this month, police also arrested Dinh Thi Thu Thuy, 38, from Hau Giang province, and Ma Phung Ngoc Tu, 28, from Can Tho City, for "posting and sharing hundreds of anti-state contents on Facebook."
In its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said bloggers are a primary source of independently reported information.
The group ranks Vietnam 175 out of 180 countries for media freedom. Some 25 journalists and bloggers are being held in Vietnam’s jails, where mistreatment is common.