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Vietnam: Facebook and YouTube 'complicit' in State censorship

Facebook recently agreed to ‘significantly increase’ compliance with requests to censor ‘anti-state’ posts

Vietnam has jailed 170 prisoners of conscience - 69 solely for their social media activity

Facebook and YouTube have become ‘hunting grounds for censors’ - Ming Yu Hah

Facebook and YouTube have allowed themselves to become tools for censorship and harassment by the Vietnamese authorities in an alarming sign of how tech giants increasingly operate in repressive countries, a new report by Amnesty International reveals today (1 December).

The 78-page report - ‘Let us Breathe!’: Censorship and criminalisation of online expression in Vietnam - documents the systematic repression of peaceful online expression in the country, including the widespread practice of “geo-blocking” content deemed critical of the authorities, and the harassing of users into silence by government-affiliated groups. 

Amnesty’s report is based on interviews with human rights defenders and activists, including former prisoners of conscience, lawyers, journalists and writers, in addition to information provided by Facebook and Google.

The report also reveals that Vietnam is currently holding 170 prisoners of conscience - 69 of whom are behind bars solely for their social media activity, a significant increase since 2018,. Twenty-one of 27 prisoners of conscience jailed so far this year were prosecuted because of their peaceful online activity.

Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty International’s South East Asia Deputy Director for Campaigns, said:

“In the last decade, the right to freedom of expression flourished on Facebook and YouTube in Vietnam. More recently, however, authorities began focusing on peaceful online expression as an existential threat to the regime.

“Today these platforms have become hunting grounds for censors, military cyber-troops and state-sponsored trolls. The platforms themselves are not merely letting it happen - they’re increasingly complicit.”

“For millions of Vietnamese netizens, Facebook was the great hope for helping to build a free and open society - and it still has the power to be. Instead of seeking to weaponise these platforms, the Vietnamese authorities should stop punishing people simply for exercising their right to freedom of expression. Everybody, regardless of their political opinions, has the right to participate in public life - both on and offline.”

In 2018, Facebook’s income from Vietnam neared US$1 billion - almost one third of all of its revenue from Southeast Asia. Google, which owns YouTube, earned US$ 475 million in the country during the same period, mainly from YouTube advertising.

Facebook and YouTube increasingly compliant

In April this year, Facebook agreed to “significantly increase” compliance with requests from the Vietnamese government to censor “anti-state” posts. It justified this policy shift by claiming the Vietnamese authorities were deliberately slowing traffic to the platform as a warning to the company.

Last month, Facebook’s latest Transparency Report revealed a shocking 983% increase in content restrictions based on local law as compared with the previous reporting period (up from 77 to 834).

Meanwhile, YouTube has won praise from Vietnamese censors for its high rate of compliance with censorship demands. In October, Information Minister Nguyen Manh Hung reportedly said that compliance with the removal of “bad information, propaganda against the Party and the State” was higher than ever, with Facebook and Google complying with 95% and 90% of censorship requests, respectively.

In October, Facebook launched a global Oversight Board - presented as the company’s independent “Supreme Court” and its solution to the human rights challenges presented by content moderation. However, Amnesty’s report reveals that the board’s bylaws will prevent it from reviewing the company’s censorship actions in relation to local law in countries like Vietnam.

Vanishing content as platforms cave to repressive laws

Amnesty’s report shows how Facebook and YouTube’s censorship of content in Vietnam operates. In some cases, users see their content censored under vaguely-worded local laws, including offences such as “abusing democratic freedoms” under the country’s Criminal Code. Amnesty views these laws as inconsistent with Vietnam’s obligations under international human rights law.

 Nguyen Van Trang, a pro-democracy activist now seeking asylum in Thailand, told Amnesty that in May this year Facebook notified him that one of his posts had been restricted due to “local legal restrictions”. Since then, Facebook has blocked every piece of content he has tried to post containing the names of senior members of the Communist Party.  He has experienced similar restrictions on YouTube, which, unlike Facebook, gave him the option to appeal against the restrictions. Some appeals have succeeded and others have not, with YouTube providing no explanation.

 The journalist Truong Chau Huu Danh told Amnesty that between 23 March and 8 May he posted a large volume of content about a ban on rice exports and the high-profile death penalty case of Ho Duy Hai. In June, he discovered these posts had vanished without any notification from Facebook whatsoever. Amnesty heard similar accounts from other Facebook users, particularly when trying to post about a high-profile land dispute in the village of Dong Tam, which saw villagers opposing military-run telecommunications company Viettel. The dispute culminated in a confrontation between villagers and security forces in January this year that saw the village leader and three police officers killed. 

Jailed, harassed and attacked

The Vietnamese authorities’ campaign of repression often results in the harassment, intimidation, prosecution and imprisonment of people for their social media use.

The current 170 prisoners of conscience imprisoned in Vietnam is the highest number ever recorded in the country by Amnesty. Nearly 40% have been imprisoned because of their peaceful social media activity.

Twenty-one of the 27 prisoners of conscience jailed so far this year were prosecuted because of their peaceful online activity under Articles 117 or 331 of the Criminal Code - the same repressive provisions that often form the basis of ‘local legal restrictions’ implemented by Facebook and YouTube. These supposed “crimes” include peacefully criticising the authorities’ COVID-19 response on Facebook and sharing independent information about human rights online.

Amnesty has also documented dozens of incidents in recent years in which human rights defenders have received messages meant to harass and intimidate, including death threats. The systematic nature of these harassment campaigns bear the hallmarks of state-sponsored cyber-troops such as Du Luan Vien or “public opinion shapers” - people recruited and managed by the Communist Party of Vietnam’s Department of Propaganda to engage in online psychological warfare. Du Luan Vien’s activities are bolstered by those of “Force 47”, a cyberspace military battalion comprising some 10,000 state security operatives whose function is to “fight against wrong views and distorted information on the internet”.

Amnesty’s investigation has also documented multiple cases of bloggers and social media users being physically attacked by the police or plainclothes assailants, who operate with the apparent acquiescence of the authorities and with virtually no accountability for such crimes.

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