Amnesty International on Wednesday accused Facebook of “caving” to Vietnam’s strict censorship regime, after the US tech giant confirmed it was blocking content deemed illegal by the country’s communist government.
Two Facebook employees told Reuters news agency Tuesday that the company’s local servers in Vietnam were taken offline earlier in the year until the company gave in to the demands of the government to remove posts, a period of about seven weeks when the website was often not usable in Vietnam.
In a statement condemning Facebook’s decision, Amnesty International Human Rights Advisor William Nee warned that after the example set by the U.S. company, “governments around the world will see this as an open invitation to enlist Facebook in the service of state censorship.”
“The revelation that Facebook is caving in to Vietnam’s far-reaching demands for censorship is a devastating turning point for freedom of expression in Vietnam and beyond,” Nee said in the statement.
“The Vietnamese authorities’ ruthless suppression of freedom of expression is nothing new, but Facebook’s shift in policy makes them complicit,” Nee added.
In an e-mailed statement to RFA on Wednesday, a Facebook company spokesperson confirmed that “the Vietnamese government has instructed us to restrict access to content which it has deemed to be illegal in Vietnam.
“We believe freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and work hard to protect and defend this important civil liberty around the world,” the spokesperson wrote.
“However, we have taken this action to ensure our services remain available and usable for millions of people in Vietnam, who rely on them every day.”
More than 66 million people in Vietnam — over half the population — use Facebook. The platform is also a crucial marketing tool for local business and is a popular platform for activists in the country where all independent media is banned
Sources familiar with Facebook’s approach to Vietnam say the firm follows host-country laws wherever it operates, including government requests to block access to content.
In the case of Hanoi, it fears that resisting requests by authorities would result in being entirely blocked in Vietnam, harming small businesses and developers who use Facebook for their work.
Amnesty International’s report highlighted how in January Hanoi began an “unprecedented crackdown” on social media in order to prevent open discussion of the Dong Tam land dispute.
RFA reported that month that protests related to the land dispute had flared up violently, leading to the deaths of three policemen and a civilian. RFA’s YouTube channel at that time was taken offline in Vietnam.
Since the beginning of the year, authorities have questioned hundreds of Facebook users over posts connected to the coronavirus pandemic and the government’s handling of the health crisis.
Several were slapped with fines and had their posts removed after admitting they had spread “fake news”.
The government introduced a new regulation this month that makes it easier for authorities to fine and jail online critics.
Around 10 percent of Vietnam’s current crop of political prisoners was jailed because of their activity on Facebook, Amnesty International says.
Vietnam, whose ruling Communist Party controls all media and tolerates no dissent, ranks 175th of 180 countries on the 2020 Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. (Source: RFA)