U.S. Concerned About Looming Internet Restrictions in Vietnam

By Patrick Goodenough | June 11, 2012 | 4:53 AM EDT

More than three million Vietnamese reportedly use Facebook, and even Thanh Nien, the mouthpiece of the Ho Chi Minh City Communist Youth League, has a Facebook page. (Image: Facebook)

(CNSNews.com) – As Vietnam’s communist government prepares to impose strict new Internet controls, the U.S. government is warning that the move will threaten freedom of expression and have an adverse commercial impact.

Among the regulations, due to enter into force this month, is one that would force popular social networking services like Facebook and Google to locate servers inside the country and set up a local presence in Vietnam.

Another would require all Internet users to use real names and personal details online – in a country where according to the free press advocates at least 19 journalists, bloggers and cyber activists are currently incarcerated for security offenses linked to Internet use.

A list of proscribed activities – prohibitions which service providers are expected to enforce – includes such vaguely-defined acts as “dissemination of information which … distorts the reputation of any organization.”

In a document sent to Hanoi’s communication and information ministry, the U.S. Embassy listed some of its concerns with the “Decree on the Management, Provision, Use of Internet Services and Information Content Online.”

The document warns that the provisions relating to prohibited actions are ‘broad and vague,” and are “likely to negatively impact individuals’ rights to freedom of expression in Vietnam.”

The requirement that service providers agree to coordinate with the Vietnamese authorities to police online activity is also a problem, it says, in part because providers are “unlikely to believe themselves competent in making judgments regarding the legality” of information on their sites under the Vietnamese restrictions.

Expecting companies to filter content – including third-party content – on pain of sanctions if they fail to do so adequately “would be extremely difficult to implement and would impose such prohibitive regulatory burdens that many innovative suppliers simply might not be able to enter the market or, if currently present, might abandon it for other markets.”

The proposal that companies like Facebook locate data centers and set up a presence in the country is a particular worry, the embassy document says, since it runs contrary to the current trend of shifting towards “cloud”-based services.

“In addition, it is unclear how Vietnam would enforce this requirement, if a social networking site were unable or unwilling to establish a local presence in Vietnam,” it says. “The United States would certainly not endorse blocking such sites, given the availability of other, less trade-restrictive alternatives, such as voluntary codes of conduct.”

A Facebook spokeswoman responded to queries Sunday by saying the company was reviewing the proposed regulations and “working closely with the industry to provide feedback to the Vietnam government on their draft decree.”

She confirmed that Facebook does not currently have any operations in Vietnam.

Google’s media office did not respond to queries.

Viet Tan (the Vietnam Reform Party), a banned Vietnamese opposition group which says it promotes peaceful change to a multiparty democracy, has called the proposals “draconian.”

“Like many government directives in Vietnam, the language in this document is vague and ill-defined, leading to multiple interpretations and possible arbitrary implementation by authorities,” it said in an earlier statement, urging foreign companies not to comply.

Hanoi has long sought to clamp down on the use of the Internet to challenge its policies and actions, even as the regime reaps the rewards of significantly improved diplomatic, trade and military relations with the U.S.

Just last Wednesday, a court in central Vietnam sentenced 53 year-old Phan Ngoc Tuan to five years’ imprisonment for “slandering the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” after accusing him of distributing, and posting online, leaflets accusing the government of actions including “suppressing religion,” the state-run Viet Nam News (VNS) reported.

The free press watchdog Reporters Without Borders labels Vietnam as one of 10 “enemies of the Internet” for its restrictions on online activities. The others are  China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Burma, North Korea, Cuba, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Just over one-third of Vietnam’s population, or some 30.9 million people, use the Internet, according to official figures updated in March. Data on the Internet World Stats website says more than three million Vietnamese use Facebook, while VNS says that Google’s Vietnamese service is the most popular search engine.

Although the government has intermittently blocked access to Facebook over the years, parts of the communist establishment at least have also embraced it. The mouthpiece of the Ho Chi Minh City Communist Youth League, for instance, has a Facebook page and every news article carries a “Like us on Facebook” link.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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