Vietnam’s Internet is in trouble

Vietnamese authorities have harped of late on the urgency of fighting cybersecurity threats and “bad and dangerous content.”

Yet the fight against either “fake news” or misinformation in Vietnam must not be used as a smoke screen for stifling dissenting opinions and curtailing freedom of speech. Doing so would only further stoke domestic cynicism in a country where the sudden expansion of space for free and open discussion has created a kind of high-pressure catharsis online.

Other countries, including democratic states, are also scrambling to rein in toxic information online. But while Germany, for example, specifically targets hate speech and other extremist messaging that directly affects the masses, Vietnamese leaders are more fixated on content deemed detrimental to their own reputation and the survival of the regime.

The ruling Communist Party of Vietnam has repeatedly urged Facebook and Google to block “toxic” information that it said slandered and defamed Vietnamese leaders. Google sort of conformed by removing more than such 5,000 clips; Facebook also flagged about 160 anti-government accounts at the behest of the government.

A cybersecurity bill was released for public consultation last year and has since widely raised hackles for a slew of cringe-worthy provisions. Chief among them was the requirement that would force Facebook and Google to set up offices and data servers here in Vietnam. Critics of this regulation say if passed, it would make a mockery of Vietnam’s commitments to international conventions and agreements. The World Trade Organization, which Vietnam joined in 2006, does not require foreign companies to set up representative offices in member countries. The dormant Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, of which Vietnam has been an ardent supporter, bars signatories from placing infrastructure demands on foreign tech businesses.

The regulation was also feared to scare away Internet companies and cripple e-commerce development. Even though that provision has been scrapped in the wake of public backlash, the bill has continued to sow widespread worries for being too vague and broad, blurring the lines between cybersecurity protection and outright censorship.

The development of Vietnam’s Internet infrastructure has outpaced the government’s ability to regulate and control it. The best it can do is restrict access to certain sites. It has also deployed an army of people to closely monitor public sentiment on social media. In December, Vietnam unveiled a new, 10,000-strong military cyber unit to combat “wrong” views online, a move that was apparently modeled on the Chinese route of controlling the Internet.

In another move, which also appears to mirror China, the Vietnamese government has reiterated its plans to develop homegrown social media and Internet platforms that it can control more effectively. But that is an unrealistic plan. Facebook, which first penetrated the Vietnamese market over a decade ago, is wildly popular here, with about 52 million active accounts.

The underlying architecture of Facebook has given rise to clickbait, sensationalist journalism and even fake news — things the government has treated as something like a public health problem. What makes sites like Facebook and YouTube so attractive to users is the relative lack of government control: they get what they want or, at least, what they think they want. But if Vietnam seeks to eliminate the very elements that drew people to the popular social media platforms in the first place, people will most likely begin to ignore them.

This means the Communist Party of Vietnam is caught between a rock and a hard place. The blossoming of unfettered social media has obviously unnerved a ruling party that remains unwavering in its monopoly on power. But Vietnam does not have something like China’s “Great Firewall;” it has chosen instead to use a game of cat and mouse to rein in the Internet. In fact, by closely policing social media, the Vietnamese government has tried to appear responsive to the public’s concerns — about, say, tree-cutting in Hanoi or the construction of a cable car into the world’s largest cave.

It appears that the sheer size of the Chinese market has made some tech companies consider censoring some content on their platforms in China. While the Vietnamese government might wrest some concessions from tech giants, it has fewer cards to play. Social media is ubiquitous in Vietnam, so to crack down on it would only incur the wrath of the public in a country where 54 percent of the population — nearly 50 million people — are online.

Many provisions enshrined in this cybersecurity bill — much less their passage — are likely to cause jitters among foreign investors, potentially sullying Vietnam’s image as a modern, pro-business state. Vietnamese lawmakers have another three months to mull over the bill, and this is a perfect opportunity for the National Assembly to prove itself as not just the rubber stamp of the ruling Communist Party but a parliament that genuinely represents the interests of the people. Parliamentarians should invite careful study and input from experts and the public alike.

Given the stakes involved, the government must abandon the notion that it can build a Chinese-style firewall or follow in the footsteps of some of its Southeast Asian neighbors to stifle freedom of speech in the name of fighting fake news. Such a course of action would only further isolate the country from the rest of the civilized world.

Dien Luong is an investigative journalist from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.

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