Google-owned video-sharing site YouTube is under rising censorship pressure in communist Vietnam. Photo: Reuters /Lucy Nicholson
Google-owned video-sharing site YouTube is under rising censorship pressure in communist Vietnam. Photo: Reuters /Lucy Nicholson

When a Google executive apologized to advertisers last week in London, the apology echoed seven time zones away in Vietnam.

As with their counterparts in Britain, Vietnamese and multinational companies have recently yanked ads from YouTube that were attached to clips deemed by authorities as offensive. 

The difference in the Southeast Asian country is that advertisers are getting pushed to withhold their advertising by government officials in Hanoi.

Matt Brittin, Google’s chief in Europe, apologized on March 13 because advertisements for major international brands had run alongside videos of extremist materials, including hate speech from white nationalist groups. 

But in the case of Vietnam, commercials have appeared with videos that were merely critical of Vietnam’s one-party state.

An internet user browses through the Vietnamese government's new Facebook page in Hanoi December 30, 2015.  Vietnam sought to discourage its internet-savvy public on Wednesday from reading Web postings that disparaged its Communist Party, warning of an increase in "toxic" activity just weeks away from its scheduled leadership shakeup. - RTX20J3G
Toxic: Vietnam tightly censors the internet for anti-state content. Photo: Reuters 

The situations on opposite sides of the planet would seem on the surface unrelated, except that they both resulted from YouTube’s computer algorithm that pairs ads with perceived as relevant user uploads.

In the context of Vietnam’s closed political system, dominated by the ruling Communist Party, the controversial videos appeared to have been uploaded by dissidents abroad.

The state’s censorship requests and companies’ agreement to oblige entail significant reputational risks for multinational corporations with operations in Vietnam’s fast growing economy. 

Earlier this month, Vietnam’s Ministry of Information and Communication summoned major local and foreign companies to its office and told them to ask YouTube owner Google, as well as Facebook, for a way to control against objectionable content.

Officials urged advertisers to boycott YouTube until it deletes clips that they believe defame, oppose, and tell lies about the state. Businesses including Ford, Unilever and Yamaha Motors complied with the government’s request, according to reports.

Under pressure: Google’s signage at its New York offices in 2013. Photo: Reuters/Andrew Kelly

“This really is a worrisome risk, affecting the safety and prestige of brands,” the ministry said in a web posting dated March 16, right after a meeting with corporate representatives from Vinamilk, Sun Group, Unilever Vietnam and others.

A day later YouTube said it had “carefully reviewed” Hanoi’s takedown requests.

“Although we do not comment on specific videos, we continue to work with the government of Vietnam, and are always available to address any questions or issues the government is concerned about,” YouTube said in a statement emailed to reporters. Vietnam was one of YouTube’s 10 fastest growing global markets in 2015.

YouTube blocked 42 uploads out of 8,000 requested by Vietnamese authorities, according to the information ministry’s official newspaper, VietNamNet.

Ministry official Le Quang Tu Do clarified on Friday that it had submitted a list of 2,200 clips to Youtube for deletion, with the 5,800 others were still being classified by ministry officials, according to state media reports.

A policeman blocks photographers from taking pictures during an anti-China protest in front of the Opera House in Hanoi July 22, 2012. An unlikely alliance between war-hardened farmers and young, urban Internet activists illustrates a rapidly evolving challenge to the Communist government's authority as Vietnamese people grow bolder in their protests over issues ranging from land rights to corruption and China's expanding regional influence. Picture taken July 22, 2012. To match Feature VIETNAM-BLOGGERS/  REUTERS/Nguyen Lan Thang (VIETNAM - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY) - RTR36Z5S
Blocked: Vietnam is home to one of the most restricted medias in Asia. Photo: Reuters /Nguyen Lan Thang 

The Google-owned video-sharing platform, however, said it had received fewer than 50 official takedown requests.

In an earlier statement, YouTube included a reminder that many advertisers don’t choose which videos show their advertisements, which is often decided automatically by a computer program.

The information ministry, in its push to steer marketing away from the website, said it recently found many ads “embedded in videos with content that is bad, toxic, and in violation of Vietnamese laws.”

The state monopolizes and controls most media in Vietnam and has jailed several independent bloggers and dissidents for critical social media posts on anti-state charges, including a provision that makes “propagandizing” against the state punishable by 20-years in prison.

One local economist said he does not expect Vietnam will resort to stopping its 92 million citizens from watching YouTube videos altogether, thanks to a mix of technical capacity and political will.

In recent years, the country also has backed away from its sporadic blocks of Facebook, which many Vietnamese bloggers use as their social media platform of choice. In neighboring China, both websites are harder to access.

Convicted Vietnamese blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh (C) stands next to his assistant Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy (R) at a court in Hanoi on September 22, 2016, to appeal his five year-sentence for disseminating anti-government articles on his wildly popular website "Ba Sam". Vinh, more commonly known as Anh Ba Sam, was arrested in 2014 and convicted in March this year, sparking outcry from lawyers and media watchdogs who condemned the jail term as a "travesty of justice". His assistant Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy was also convicted in March and sentenced to three years in prison.   / AFP PHOTO / Vietnam News Agency / STR
Jailed: Convicted Vietnamese bloggers Nguyen Huu Vinh (C) and Nguyen Thi Minh in court on September 22, 2016, Photo: AFP/ Vietnam News Agency 

Marc Townsend, managing director of CBRE Vietnam, a multinational property company, said the government’s pressure puts businesses in a tough spot.

While free speech matters, Townsend said, firms also need to worry about corporate compliance, as well as find a way to work with ministries that control their licensing and other business issues.

“Most of us don’t own our own companies,” he said. “We have a responsibility to our shareholders, to our clients.”

While YouTube did not offer a public statement on the matter, it instead pointed local reporters to a statement from the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), an industry association of multinational technology companies that includes Facebook and Google.

“The Vietnamese economy benefits greatly from the internet – from lowering barriers to entry for entrepreneurs and [small businesses], to providing access to global markets for Vietnamese goods and services,” AIC managing director Jeff Paine said.

“The internet’s ability to deliver growth dividends and benefit Vietnamese businesses and people, depend on it remaining open and allowing information and services to flow freely and safely across borders.”