Vietnam says Facebook violated new law by not removing anti-government content

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The Vietnamese government is accusing Facebook of violating a new cybersecurity law by refusing to remove content and pages that allegedly promote dissent.


State-run media in Vietnam is reporting that Facebook has violated a new cybersecurity law. According to Vietnam’s Ministry of Communication and Information, Facebook did not respond to a request from the Vietnamese government to remove content and pages that were allegedly “provoking activities against the state.”

Facebook’s non-compliance represents a break from the norm, as the company has so far sought to please the Vietnamese government.

The new Law on Cybersecurity, which went into effect on January 1, requires tech companies to open offices inside Vietnam if they’re doing business in the country. It can also require the companies to store data on servers located inside the country, putting the companies and their data under the jurisdiction of domestic oversight.

The companies have to comply by 2020, but the Vietnamese government is showing signs that this may be the first of many hurdles introduced for foreign tech companies. The government is making it clear that if they want to continue to do business in Vietnam, they will have to appease the state.

The Asia Internet Coalition, an association of tech companies that includes Facebook, has openly criticized the new law in a statement saying that “it raises serious privacy and civil liberty concerns for the people of Vietnam and stands to significantly damage the country’s economic growth prospects.”

Critics say the new law threatens freedom of speech and expression

Amnesty International and other critics claim the Vietnamese government may use the law to monitor dissidents and punish those who post content that authorities consider objectionable. Since 2017, the Vietnamese government has employed a force of over 10,000, known as Force 47, to monitor the internet for criticism of the state and to counter government criticism where possible.

Since the new law’s passage, 13 civil society groups in Vietnam have released a statement asking the government to repeal the law.

Sources: VOA, Reuters, Vice, Freedom House (I)(II)

Popular Vietnamese songwriter Do Nguyen Mai Khoi recently spoke out against the law, calling out the government for allegedly locking activists out of their accounts and deleting their content.

Company officials at Facebook have also privately voiced concerns that the government may use the law to forcibly obtain user data and threaten local Facebook employees with arrest.

This is the first instance of Vietnam attempting to enforce the law, and there are still few details as to the government’s plans to roll out enforcement on a broader level. The government’s quick reaction suggests that it may use the new law mainly to target companies, rather than expanding its suppression of individuals’ online activities.

The government’s crackdown on Facebook is a part of a concerted campaign against internet freedom and the use of independent online platforms to exercise freedom of expression. Until now, Facebook has complied with the Vietnamese government’s requests to remove content that they claim violates domestic law.

“We have a clear process for governments to report illegal content to us, and we review all these requests against our terms of service and applicable law,” said a Facebook spokesperson told ASEAN Today. “We are transparent about the content restrictions we make pursuant with local law.”

Activists inside Vietnam and abroad have accused Facebook of supporting their government’s efforts to stamp out dissent.

But after the new cybersecurity law was passed last June, 17 members of US Congress wrote to Facebook and Google’s executives, calling on them to push back against the law and not to store their data inside Vietnam. It appears the company has taken heed of Congress’ comments.

In 2018, activist Doan Khanh Vinh Quang was sentenced to over two years in prison over posts he made on Facebook, as he was allegedly “abusing democratic and freedom rights.”

The Vietnamese government has shown it’s tired of Facebook and Google being used to spread dissent

Around 60 million of Vietnam’s 90 million citizens use Facebook, but the government has set a goal to get 50% of the population onto domestic social media networks by 2020.

The government says this is due in part to the “toxic information” on Facebook and Google. Some analysts see the government’s calls for users to switch to domestic platforms as a bid for social control. But there’s also a possible economic motivation. According to the Ministry of Information, advertising revenue from Vietnam brings in US$135 million for Google and US$235 million for Facebook each year. Last year, the two companies paid only a combined US$5.3 million in taxes to the Vietnamese government.

The push to grow domestic tech firms is driven in part by Minister of Information and Communications General Nguyen Manh Hung, who was appointed in July. Hung was previously the CEO of Viettel, a state-run military and telecom corporation. Prior to Facebook’s recent alleged violations, Hung predicted that the government would be unable to force international tech firms to comply with Vietnamese law.

The Ministry of Information hopes that three Vietnamese companies will drive the increase in domestic firms’ market share: Zalo, a messaging platform that already has 100 million users; Mocha, a video-sharing site; and VCCorp, an online publishing site. However, Mocha and VCCorp have a long way to go to match the popularity of Google and Facebook in Vietnam.