Facebook caved to Vietnamese government demands for increased censorship of “anti-state” posts after state-owned telecoms suppressed local traffic, two sources at the firm told Reuters on Tuesday.
According to Reuters, Vietnamese telecoms launched a sustained attack on Facebook traffic that intermittently knocked out its servers for seven weeks spanning February to early April, with one of the sources stating the campaign was deliberately intended to put “significant pressure on us to increase our compliance with legal takedowns” in the country. At the time, state media and telecoms portrayed severely disrupted access to Facebook as simply the result of issues with undersea internet cables. The company confirmed to Reuters that it then finally agreed to “restrict access to content which [the Vietnamese government] has deemed to be illegal.”
Non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch characterizes the human rights record of Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party as “appalling” and growing worse in recent years, citing continuous harassment and imprisonment of dissidents, use of “sanctioned thugs” to attack political opponents, and monopolistic control of all “TV, radio, newspapers, and other publications.” Reporters Without Borders assesses its degree of press freedom at near rock bottom among 180 countries.
In 2019, according to Human Rights Watch, the Vietnamese government locked up dozens of activists and dissidents. The same year, the Vietnamese government introduced a dystopian “cybersecurity” law forcing all internet providers to censor “toxic” content in order to suppress “hostile and reactionary forces,” imprisoning at least 25 people. At the time the law was introduced, Facebook told the Guardian it would work to protect users’ basic rights.
That law obligates Facebook to store user data in local offices within Vietnam, which Facebook says it does not do, according to Reuters. A company spokesperson did tell the news agency that it maybe, sorta plans on standing up to government pressure the next time: “To be clear, that does not mean we will be complying with every request that the government sends us. But we did commit to restricting significantly more content.”
The Vietnamese government has also reportedly set up a thousands-strong Ministry of Public Security unit that distributes pro-government propaganda online, reports dissent, and launches cyberattacks on opponents. That was particularly on show in January 2020, according to Al Jazeera, when police clashed with villagers in Dong Tam resisting efforts to build a military airfield, leaving three officers and 84-year-old local leader Le Dinh Kinh dead.
“The Vietnamese government’s heavy-handed efforts to censor discussion of this land dispute are the latest example of its campaign to assert control over online content,” Amnesty International regional director Nicholas Bequelin told Al Jazeera in a statement. “Social media, particularly Facebook, is increasingly becoming weaponized by Vietnam to go after those who peacefully speak their mind. This is an unacceptable attack on freedom of expression and a clear attempt to stamp out dissent.”
In the rest of its statement to Reuters, Facebook claimed complying was necessary to “ensure our services remain available and usable for millions of people in Vietnam, who rely on them every day.” One of the other sources added that the situation in Vietnam was a “sharp contrast” with increased Facebook traffic in other countries during the coronavirus pandemic, but “Thankfully, that’s now resolved.”
Social media consulting firm We Are Social estimated in early 2019 there are 60 million Facebook users out of Vietnam’s population of 95 million, according to the Wall Street Journal. The company dominates communications and e-commerce there, as it does throughout much of southeast Asia. Vietnamese state-owned media have also complained that Facebook (as well as Google) pay only a pittance in tax revenue there as they rake in big bucks; according to Reuters, Vietnamese market research firm Ants estimates the two companies pull in around 70 percent of an estimated $550 million of the country’s digital ad spend in 2018.