The posting online of any material that “opposes” the Socialist Republic of Vietnam or “harms national security” will also be outlawed under vague new Internet regulations that are causing dismay at home and abroad.
The introduction of the law known as “Decree 72” comes a month after President Obama hosted Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang at the White House, and less than two months before Vietnam will almost certainly be elected onto the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Early this month the U.S. House of Representatives, by a margin of 405-3, passed the Vietnam Human Rights Act, which would prohibit any increase in non-humanitarian U.S. aid unless Hanoi makes significant progress in promoting human rights.
Vietnam’s foreign ministry in response said the legislation gave an “erroneous and biased depiction of Vietnam’s human rights and religious freedom” record.
Yet just four days after that statement, deputy information minister Le Nam Thang held a press conference to discuss Decree 72 – which had first been announced a week earlier – saying the aim was to prevent people from misusing the Internet to spread false information.
“Personal web page owners are only allowed to provide their own information, and are prohibited from taking news from media agencies and using that information as if it were their own,” Thang said, according to a report in Tuoi Tre News, an official mouthpiece of communist youth movement.
State media quoted Hoang Vinh Bao, head of the government’s broadcast and electronic information department, as explaining further that “individuals are allowed to share and provide information about themselves on their web page [but] individuals should not quote or share information from press agencies or websites of government agencies.”
Another provision requires foreign internet companies to locate a server inside Vietnam – a controversial proposal first raised last year and seen by critics as an attempt to compel foreign companies to comply with censorship directives.
The Asia Internet Coalition, set up by Facebook, Google, eBay and Yahoo! “to promote the understanding and resolution of Internet policy issues in the Asia Pacific region,” called the move “unfortunate.”
“We believe that the decree will negatively affect Vietnam’s Internet ecosystem,” it said in a statement. “In the long term, the decree will stifle innovation and discourage businesses from operating in Vietnam, thereby hindering Vietnam’s goal to establish itself as an advanced competitive ICT nation.”
On Monday the U.S. and 20 other governments urged Vietnam to amend the decree “so that it promotes the ability of individuals to exercise their human rights, including the right to freedom of expression.”
The countries all belong to the Freedom Online Coalition, set up in 2011 as “a forum for like-minded governments … to support the ability of individuals to exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms online.”
Speaking on behalf of the coalition, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the decree also “risks harming Vietnam’s economy by constraining the development of businesses in Vietnam, limiting innovation, and deterring foreign investment.”
According to Internet World Stats, a leading market researcher, at the end of last year 31 million Vietnamese were using the Internet – 34 percent of the population – and 10.7 million were Facebook subscribers.
Hanoi insists the regulations are misunderstood and says they are designed not to censor but to protect intellectual property rights – but critics are doubtful.
“There are already a great number of regulations in effect to protect copyrights, there’s no need to have Decree 72,” prominent economist and Internet authority Nguyen Quang A told the Voice of America’s Vietnamese service.
“This decree is a gross violation of people’s freedom of speech, it doesn’t have anything to do with intellectual property rights at all.”
The skepticism is understandable in a country which the media freedom group Reporters Without Borders labels an “Enemy of the Internet,” saying it imprisons more journalists than any other nation apart from China and Iran.
“If [the decree] takes effect, Vietnamese will be permanently deprived of the independent and outspoken information that normally circulates in blogs and forums,” the watchdog warned earlier this month.
‘Determined to smash subversive schemes’
Vietnam has benefited significantly from a deepening political and economic relationship with the U.S. in recent years, a development welcomed by many but also giving rise to concerns because of continuing human rights and religious freedom abuses.
On Wednesday, the government marks the 60th anniversary of the decision by then North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh to set up a diplomatic corps. In a statement marking the anniversary Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh extolled its diplomatic achievements ranging from the 1973 Paris peace accords ending the Vietnam War to the decision during Truong’s recent visit to Washington to establish a “comprehensive partnership” with the U.S.
But the same statement also underlined Hanoi’s hostility towards anything that it views as a threat to its ideology – and its view that issues of human rights, religious freedom and democracy are used as pretexts by its critics.
The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, it said, “remains determined to smash subversive schemes hostile forces orchestrate to foment instability and intervention through democratic, human rights, and religious issues.”