November 30, 2020 by Ethics In Tech Board Member Brett Wilkins for Common Dreams

Silicon Valley tech giants Facebook and YouTube have allowed themselves to become complicit in Vietnamese government repression, including censorship, harassment, and more,  according to a report published Monday evening by Amnesty International. 

The report, entitled Let Us Breath: Censorship and Criminalization of Online Expression in Vietnam (pdf), details “systematic repression of the right to freedom of expression online” in the communist-ruled Southeastern Asian nation of 96 million. 

Documented abuses include “geo-blocking” of user content deemed critical of the country’s ruling regime, as well as “sophisticated” online campaigns meant to bully targeted individuals or groups into submission. 

The report’s authors interviewed dozens of activists and human rights advocates, including journalists, bloggers, attorneys, and others. Amnesty found that the Vietnamese regime is currently jailing around 170 prisoners of conscience, including 69 who are jailed solely for their social media posts.

“In the last decade, the right to freedom of expression flourished on Facebook and YouTube in Vietnam,” Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for Campaigns, said in a statement. “More recently, however, authorities began focusing on peaceful online expression as an existential threat to the regime.”

“Today these platforms have become hunting grounds for censors, military cyber- troops, and state-sponsored trolls,” Ming continued. “The platforms themselves are not merely letting it happen—they’re increasingly complicit.”

“Instead of seeking to weaponize these platforms, the Vietnamese authorities should stop punishing people simply for exercising their right to freedom of expression,” Ming added. “Everybody in Vietnam, regardless of their political opinions, has the right to participate in public life—both on and offline.”

With Facebook earning nearly $1 billion in Vietnamese revenue in 2018, and with YouTube making $475 million that year, mostly from online ads, the tech titans have a strong incentive to, if not bow, then to bend to the wishes of a regime that according to the latest Amnesty International country report has carried out an ongoing “crackdown on the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.”

Vietnamese authorities have approvingly noted just how compliant the social media companies have been. Information Minister Nguyen Manh Hung was quoted by state-owned media last month as saying the companies’ removal of “bad information, propaganda against the party and the state” was at an all-time high, with Facebook and Google fulfilling 95% and 90% of censorship requests, respectively. 

Vietnamese government repression has accelerated at an alarming rate. According to the new report, there has been a staggering 983% increase in content restriction compared with the previous reporting period.

The stricter censorship is largely a result of a new cybersecurity law that went into effect last year. 

Accoridng to Amnesty, the law is “aimed at restricting rights online”:

The authorities subjected human rights defenders and activists to harassment, intimidation, and abusive restrictions both online and offline. The government prosecuted human rights defenders and activists, using a range of criminal law provisions. Prolonged pre-trial detention was common. Prisoners of conscience were denied access to lawyers and family members, lacked proper healthcare, and in some cases were subjected to torture.

Activists told Amnesty that they have grown to distrust the social media companies.

“I have lost faith in Facebook, so I don’t post much anymore,” democracy advocate Nguyen Van Trang told the group. “Imagine if you spent years and years growing your Facebook account, posting and writing about your passions for democracy, but then in one easy act, Facebook just erases all the work you have done over the years.”

The repression goes far beyond mere censorship, as the statistics on people jailed for their online activities show. State security forces including Du Luan Vien, or “public opinion shapers,” and Force 47—a 10,000-strong military cyberspace battalion—keep people ever fearful of what they post. 

Ming says tech companies must do more to protect their users from state repression. 

“Businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights wherever they operate in the world, and Vietnam is no exception,” Ming wrote. “The company could be doing much more to push back against Vietnam’s heinous repression.”

“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,” she added.

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