Facebook’s complicity in Vietnamese state repression shows pattern for tech giant

Image: Dsndrn-Videolar / Pixabay

Facebook’s reported compliance with the Vietnamese government’s censorship requests does not set an encouraging precedent. The practice is likely to encourage authoritarian regimes as more repressive governments may adopt similar strategies against the tech giant.

By Umair Jamal

An Amnesty International report has accused Facebook and YouTube of aiding the Vietnamese government in censoring criticism and blocking posts expressing dissent in the country.

The report says that the companies have assisted “censorship and repression on an industrial scale” in Vietnam.

Vietnam is not the only country where Facebook has been accused of such practice. Similar patterns have been reported in other countries in Southeast Asia and beyond, raising fears that the global tech giant is willing to bend to authoritarian regimes to protect its business interests.

The dynamic could have global implications as more repressive governments adopt similar strategies.

Facebook faces growing pressure over data and privacy in Vietnam

Vietnam’s government has a reputation for restricting freedom of speech and online dissent. In recent years, Facebook accounts of activists and bloggers were routinely blocked for criticizing authorities. Authorities in Vietnam have long jailed critics of the ruling party but the practice is now at its highest since Amnesty International started publishing data in 1996. In Vietnam, there are around 170 “prisoners of conscience” and 69 of them are serving jail time for their online activism, which the government considers a threat to its rule.

The recent surge started when a controversial 2013 law banned Vietnamese internet users from discussing current affairs. The law, known as Decree 72, bars online blogs and social media websites from sharing content that may be critical of the government. The law also requires that foreign internet companies, including Facebook, keep local servers in the country. The regulation also declared that Twitter and Facebook can only be used “to provide and exchange personal information.”

In a push to tighten its censorship laws and assert more control over international technology companies, Vietnam’s government passed another controversial cyber law in 2018. The law which went into effect in January 2019 and imposed additional legal checks on global technology companies, including requirements that they set up local offices, keep all user data records inside Vietnam and, if required, agree to hand over any requested data to the state. The law also requires that social media sites take down any content considered anti-state by the government within a period of 24 hours.

Commenting on Facebook and YouTube operations in Vietnam, Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for campaigns, said that these platforms have become “hunting grounds for censors, military cyber-troops and state-sponsored trolls.”

“The platforms [Facebook and YouTube] themselves are not merely letting it happen—they’re increasingly complicit,” she added.

A Facebook data center in Oregon, United States. Photo: Tom Raftery, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Are Facebook and other tech firms prioritizing profits over human rights?

According to Facebook’s own transparency report, the platform complied with 834 content restrictions from the Vietnamese government in the first half of 2020. This is a huge rise compared to the previous six-month reporting period.

Amnesty International says that the recent increase was driven by the government’s efforts to contain debate on the Dong Tam land dispute, a prominent issue that brought the media’s attention to a military plan to construct an airfield on land claimed by villagers.

In April, Facebook was forced to significantly increase its compliance with Vietnamese government requests to geo-block more content after authorities purposely slowed traffic to the platform by taking its local servers offline.

Instead of taking some quantifiable counter measures to preserve its autonomy, Facebook has been complying with Vietnam’s requests for years. One reason is linked to the country’s lucrative market for the company. In 2018, Facebook earned almost US$1 billion from the Vietnamese market. “Facebook is by far the most popular and profitable platform in Vietnam,” said Amnesty’s Ming Yu Hah.

Facebook follows similar practices in other countries

Vietnam is not the only country where Facebook may be choosing to aid repressive efforts from governments to protect its business interests. In Southeast Asia, Facebook has also complied with requests from the Thai government by blocking access to content critical of the monarchy. The Philippines is another example, where President Rodrigo Duterte’s repressive government is using Facebook to wage campaigns against its critics. In 2018, Facebook admitted that people used its platform to incite violence in Myanmar. In a statement, one of Facebook’s executives said that the platform had failed to prevent itself from being used to “foment division and incite offline violence” in the country.

Outside the region, India provides another example, as Facebook has reportedly declined to ban a violent religious group because the company fears for its business interests. In January, Facebook also blocked live streaming of the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation’s coverage of India’s alleged human rights violations in Kashmir. In other countries, including Myanmar, Facebook’s platform has helped to amplify misinformation campaigns. Facebook’s slow response and weak content monitoring mechanism in countries like Sri Lanka has allowed rumors to spark violence.

Beyond Vietnam, Facebook is fast becoming a government surveillance tool rather than a platform to voice dissent or broadcast views to a wide audience. Unfortunately, such practices will only encourage authoritarian regimes globally as other repressive governments could adopt similar strategies. Facebook needs not only to improve its content monitoring mechanisms but also to practice its own declared policy of upholding freedom of speech and privacy.  

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at umair.jamal@outlook.com and on Twitter @UmairJamal15