Vietnam steps up offensive on online critics

More than 30 million Vietnamese have signed up to Facebook, a significant blow to the government's long cherished monopoly on information. Photo courtesy AFP.

Vietnam’s drive to roll back freedom of expression on the internet has entered a new phase with the coming into effect of its new cyber security law.

The law gives the state extensive new powers of control over Facebook, Google and other tech companies and requires them to remove any content considered “toxic”.

Dozens of bloggers and other government critics have already been rounded up and imprisoned in recent years for overstepping undefined and undeclared red lines in cyberspace.

The government is now making its intolerance of criticism much more explicit, and ordering international tech firms to get in line.

Unlike China, Vietnam failed to ban Facebook and other foreign based social media platforms in their early years of growth. The Communist party watched with alarm as the internet became a forum for debate not seen in Vietnam since it imposed one party rule on the country.

The authorities have deployed police and civilian auxiliaries to intimidate their most prolific online critics, and used the legal system to imprison activists under vaguely worded charges such as “abusing democratic freedoms”, or “employing propaganda against the state”.

The new law passed by the National Assembly in June will enhance the government’s legal armoury and could be used to step up arrests.

Under the provisions, international tech companies are required to open offices in Vietnam, to store data locally and had over information when requested by the government.

The law requires social media platforms to delete any posts that the government considers unacceptable.

Analysts say that Vietnam is attempting to impose on social media the same restrictions and tight censorship that it already applies to mainstream media.

Anyone posting “false information” and items that “cause confusion and damage to socio-economic activities” could be subject to criminal proceedings.

The state controlled Association of Journalists last week published regulations banning reporters from posting any information online that “runs counter” to the wishes of the state.

Government officials say they’re concerned about cyber security like any other government, but have made clear they also want to crush what they call hostile and reactionary forces that use the internet to stir up dissent.

Vietnam’s most intense crackdown in recent years has focused on those who took up the cause of fishermen whose livelihoods were affected by a toxic leak on the country’s north-central coast in 2016.

Tech firms have 12 months to comply with the new requirements. They have complained that the law will damage innovation and Vietnam’s ambitions to develop the industry.