A new report by Amnesty International reveals how social media users in Vietnam face the constant threat of arbitrary arrest, prosecution and other forms of harassment in retaliation for exercising their right to freedom of expression online.
In recent years, the Vietnamese authorities have mounted a major crackdown against those who express critical views online, and tech giants Facebook and YouTube are allowing themselves to become tools of the Vietnamese authorities’ censorship and harassment of its population.
The report, titled “Let us Breathe!”: Censorship and criminalization of online expression in Viet Nam”, documents the systematic repression of peaceful online expression in Vietnam, including the widespread “geo-blocking” of content deemed critical of the authorities.
The report is based on dozens of 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.
“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,” said Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for Campaigns.
“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.”
While censoring content, the social media platform allows groups affiliated with the government to deploy sophisticated campaigns to harass everyday users into silence and fear.
The report also reveals that Viet Nam is currently holding 170 prisoners of conscience, of whom 69 are behind bars solely for their social media activity. This represents a significant increase in the number of prisoners of conscience estimated by Amnesty International in 2018.
In 2018, Facebook’s income from Vietnam neared US$1 billion – almost one third of all revenue from Southeast Asia. Google, which owns YouTube, earned US$475 million in Vietnam during the same period, mainly from YouTube advertising.
The size of these profits underlines the importance for Facebook and Google of maintaining market access in Vietnam.
“Facebook is by far the most popular and profitable platform in Vietnam. Businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights wherever they operate in the world, and Vietnam is no exception,” said Ming Yu Hah.
“The company could be doing much more to push back against Viet Nam’s heinous repression,” Ming Yu Hah continued. “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.”
In April 2020, Facebook announced it had agreed to “significantly increase” its 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.
Meanwhile, YouTube has consistently won praise from Vietnamese censors for its relatively high rate of compliance with censorship demands.
Vietnamese Information Minister Nguyen Manh Hung said in October 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. (Source: Amnesty Intl.)