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Vietnam: Facebook bends over backwards to appease communist regime by censoring ‘anti-state’ comments: All you need to know

State-owned telecom companies in Vietnam had pulled down the local servers of Facebook for around 7 weeks until the social media giant decided to give in to the demands of the Communist regime to censor 'anti-state' posts

The Communist regime in Vietnam has been cracking down on its dissenters, often resorting to making illegal arrests and detentions. The social media giant Facebook, which claims to be the crusader of freedom of speech, has been complying with the diktat of the Communist government in censorship critics and silencing opinion makers. The appeasement of the dictatorial government by a tech company from the oldest democracy of the world has left netizens across the world infuriated.

Between mid-February and early April this year, the State-owned telecom companies in Vietnam pulled down the local servers of Facebook for around 7 weeks until the social media giant decided to give in to the demands of the Communist regime to censor ‘anti-state’ posts. Users in the country noticed that access to Facebook, Messenger and Instagram apps had become incredibly slow. While the State media had blamed the slower access on undersea cable maintenance, a Facebook source conceded that the action was to put undue pressure on the company to comply with the government’s orders.

Facebook acknowledges complying with government’s diktat

In an email to Reuters, Facebook has conceded that it ‘reluctantly’ restricted access to ‘illegal content’, as deemed by the government of 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,” Facebook said in a statement.

While it is mandated by law for Facebook to open local offices and store data in the country, Facebook has claimed that it does not store data in Vietnam. Having said that, the country is one of the biggest markets in Asia with digital advertising revenue to the tune of 550 $million (2018), 70% of which goes to Facebook and Google.

Screengrab of the Reuters report

Communist regime acknowledges rise in 40% censorship

In August 2019, Information and Communications Minister Nguyen Manh Hung said Facebook conceded that the social media giant was ‘restricting access’ to 70-75% posts, which are flagged by the government. He pointed out that the compliance percentage has risen up from 30%, thereby witnessing an increase of 40-45% to government diktats. Since 2017, the Communist regime has directed companies to not advertise with Facebook and Google until they find a solution to ‘toxic anti-government information. And the strategy has been working in the government’s favour. Facebook is now removing user-generated content, under the pretext of violating ‘Community guidelines.’

Activists in Vietnam jailed over Facebook posts

Vietnam ranks 175th out of 180 countries on the press freedom index, as compiled by Reporters Without Borders each year. The scope of dissent is extremely limited in Vietnam with government monitoring online activity on social media platforms such as Facebook with over 65 million users. At least 16 people have been arrested or detained so far by the Communist regime over ‘anti-state’ Facebook posts.

On October 20, a 51-year-old man named Nguyen Quang Khai was taken into custody for supposedly ‘sharing national secrets’ after he highlighted concerns about problems facing Vietnam, at the hands of the Communist regime, on Facebook. He was booked under Article 377 (Distributing or collecting state secrets and other materials) of Vietnam’s Penal Code.

In November alone, an additional five people were jailed by the government. Earlier, a 45-year-old music teacher Nguyen Nang Tinh was arrested sentenced to 11 years in prison for criticising the Communist regime on Facebook. In 2018, about 16 activist groups and 34 prominent users wrote an open letter to Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg, accusing him of working in tandem with the government in crushing popular dissent.

Global criticism of Facebook’s decision

Slamming the US tech giant, Christian Mir from Reporters Without Borders stated, “Especially in countries with limited freedom of the press, social media such as Facebook give many journalists the opportunity to report freely…Facebook must be aware of this responsibility, clearly acknowledge freedom of the press and must not bow to possible censorship requirements of authoritarian regimes.”

Moreover, Amnesty International has emphasised that the decision of the social media giant sets a dangerous precedent. It stated, “Facebook’s compliance with these demands sets a dangerous precedent. Governments around the world will see this as an open invitation to enlist Facebook in the service of state censorship.”

Vietnamese government threatens to shut down Facebook

In a new development, the Vietnamese government has threatened to close down Facebook if it did not censor more anti-state political content on its platform. The threat comes despite the fact that the social media giant had agreed to cater to the government’s diktat to silence dissenters. Facebook has stated in its biannual transparency report that it has censored 834 items in the first half of the year, on the behest of the Communist regime.

“We made an agreement in April. Facebook has upheld our end of the agreement, and we expected the government of Vietnam to do the same…They have come back to us and sought to get us to increase the volume of content that we’re restricting in Vietnam. We’ve told them no. That request came with some threats about what might happen if we didn’t,” a Facebook source revealed. The official has further conceded that the social media giant has been subjected to a 14-month-long negative media campaign by the Vietnamese press.

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