An international rights group has warned Facebook and Google that their collusion with the Vietnamese government is silencing rights defenders and suppressing online activism.
Amnesty International said the world’s largest technology titans are taking an increasingly complicit role in Vietnamese authorities’ censorship regime.
“In Vietnam, platforms like Facebook and YouTube have become hunting grounds for government censors and state-sponsored trolls,” the group said in a Nov. 30 report.
The latest report, "Let us Breathe!”, documents the systematic repression of peaceful online speech in the communist-ruled country.
The 78-page report said Facebook and Google’s YouTube “geo-block” content, meaning it becomes invisible to anyone accessing the platform in the southeast Asian country.
Last month Facebook revealed a 983 percent increase in content restrictions based on local law compared with the previous reporting period. Meanwhile, YouTube has consistently won praise from Vietnamese censors for its relatively high rate of compliance with censorship demands.
On Nov. 6, Information and Communication Minister Nguyen Manh Hung told the National Assembly that compliance with the removal of bad information and propaganda against the state was higher than ever, with Facebook and YouTube complying with 95 percent and 90 percent of censorship requests respectively.
Hung threatened to shut down Facebook locally if it refused to agree to censor more political content.
“Hundreds of cases have been punished for posting fake and wrong news this year,” he said.
Amnesty International’s report, based on dozens of interviews with local activists, lawyers and writers, revealed how social media users in Vietnam face the constant threat of arbitrary arrest, prosecution and other forms of harassment in retaliation for exercising their right to freedom of expression online. They are increasingly faced with arbitrary censorship when they seek to share critical views online.
The London-based group said Vietnam has at least 170 prisoners of conscience, with 53 men and 16 women serving jail terms for expressing opinions on online platforms, mainly on Facebook and YouTube. Prisoners of conscience are defined as people who have not used or advocated violence but were imprisoned because of their identity or beliefs.
It said in some cases users see their content censored under vaguely worded local laws, including offenses such as “abusing democratic freedoms”. Groups affiliated to the government deploy sophisticated online campaigns on the platforms to harass everyday users into silence and fear.
On Nov. 27, police in Dong Nai province’s Trang Bom district prosecuted Nguyen Van Nhanh, 28, for violating the cybersecurity law. He has been banned from leaving his residence for four months.
Nhanh was accused of using two Facebook accounts to offend two district officials who unfairly confiscated people’s lands for irrigation channels.
Amnesty International said Facebook and Google maintain market access in Vietnam for their big profits. Facebook’s income neared US$1 billion in 2018 and Google earned US$475 million, mainly from YouTube advertising.
It asked the US companies to have a responsibility to respect all human rights wherever they operate. They should respect the right to freedom of expression in their content moderation decisions globally, regardless of local laws that muzzle freedom of expression.
The group called on all people to demand Facebook end its censorship in Vietnam.
“This isn’t only about Vietnam — it’s about people everywhere having the freedom to express their opinions. If the Vietnamese authorities successfully pressure Facebook to censor content in Vietnam, other repressive governments could soon follow suit,” the report said.
The government retains tight control on media, tolerates little opposition and is intensifying a crackdown on dissidents and online activists ahead of the Party Congress early next year.