Facebook has habitually obliged Vietnam's censorship requests. Image: Twitter

Vietnam is threatening again to shut down Facebook due to official perceptions the US social media giant isn’t doing enough to censor content critical of the ruling Communist Party.

With an estimated 60 million users, nearly two-thirds of the Vietnamese population is on the social media platform.

Facebook releases a biannual transparency report, which indicates that it restricted 834 posts at the request of the Vietnamese government between January and June 2020.

The figure represents a big jump from the 121 items Facebook took down at Hanoi’s request during the same six-month period in 2019 and the 77 it censored from July to December 2019.

Over that period, popular Facebooker and pro-democracy advocate Nguyen Quoc Duc Vuong was arrested and sentenced to eight years in prison under the 2005 Criminal Code for posting allegedly “anti-state” material.

According to the 88 Project, an independent rights group that keeps a thorough database of Vietnamese political prisoners, there has been a surge of similar arrests and prison sentences handed to Vietnamese Facebook users, known locally as “Facebookers”, for “anti-state” posts over the past year.

Facebook’s aid to Vietnamese authorities in erasing dissent from its platform has been well documented in recent years. Bloggers routinely receive multi-year sentences for vague and ill-defined crimes against the state.

According to Human Rights Watch, a rights lobby, Vietnam is now holding over 130 political prisoners.

Of the 834 total restrictions obliged by Facebook, the vast majority (653) were single posts, while 167 pages and groups and 14 profiles were restricted.

Facebook page with a message to the social media giant’s founder Mark Zuckerberg in the Vietnamese language. Image: Twitter

For the last four six-month reporting periods, dating back to July to December 2018, Facebook has cited only one law as the basis for the government requests – Decree No 72 – which includes relevant prohibitions on anti-state content, defamation of public officials and the spread of false information online.

The law, which went into effect in 2013, was blasted at the time by international rights and freedom of information groups. However, the implications of Decree 72 mostly bypassed Facebook until the implementation of the 2019 Cybersecurity Law, which requires Facebook to store user data and its servers inside Vietnam.

The data localization requirement of the 2019 Cybersecurity Law forces Facebook’s hand in a way that the 2013 Decree 72 did not, though the provisions of the latter are what are being cited by the Vietnamese government to make its censorship demands.

Early last year, Facebook’s local servers were taken offline by the Vietnamese government due to non-compliance with the government’s specific demands for censorship. Thereafter, in April, Facebook claims to have come to an agreement with the government about censorship, the period that saw a spike in obliged takedown requests.

Facebook was reportedly only willing to enter into that agreement after state-owned telecommunications companies suppressed local traffic to the platform, which they are now able to do with maximum effectiveness thanks to the 2019 Cybersecurity Law provision requiring that Facebook keep its servers onshore.

Crucially, the Vietnamese government’s issue with Facebook is not that they are unwilling to restrict content, but rather that it is unwilling or unable to do it to the extent demanded by Decree 72.

Facebook has played along in suppressing dissent to keep access to the lucrative Vietnamese market, which reportedly earns the social media giant US$1billion in annual revenue.

Yet the Vietnamese government is clearly not satisfied with the extent of Facebook’s censorship. Specifically, Decree 72 requires “massive and constant government surveillance of the entire Internet.”

After the decree’s implementation, Vietnam created a 10,000-strong cyber warfare unit to combat online dissent in 2017. However, they couldn’t fully monitor the Internet without full cooperation from Facebook and access to its user data.

An internet user browses through the Vietnamese government’s Facebook page in Hanoi in a file photo. Photo: Agencies

Vietnamese officials are now calling for more legal tools, including amendments to regulations governing cross-border digital platforms like Facebook. Though Facebook is not the only target: Vietnam’s Minister of Information and Technology Nguyen Manh Hung accused Netflix of violating Vietnamese law by “flouting content regulations” in a recent interview.

These regulations apply to entertainment elements typically curbed by censors such as nudity, drug use and violence, but they also include clauses on Vietnam’s history, government, national heroes and public figures.

If programming portrays a version of Vietnamese history or offers a take on society that is at odds with the government’s line, it is liable to be banned. This principle goes doubly so for Facebook as it is has become the de fact top platform for dissent in Vietnam, hence the government’s intense and perpetual scrutiny.

One glaring example of the censorship was last month’s widely reported Dong Tam story, where Facebook banned the dissemination of news related to a land dispute in the small northern town of Dong Tam where police stormed the area and killed four locals.

Sharing information or discussing the fateful event has been forbidden by authorities, resulting in several users being permanently banned by Facebook with little formal explanation.

Even national celebrities have successfully lobbied the government to intervene on their behalf to take “anti-fan” groups that congregate on Facebook. Huong Giang, a prominent Vietnamese model, recently successfully lobbied authorities to force one such group off of Facebook under provisions in the Cybersecurity Law that criminalize criticism of “national heroes.”

Such provisions are as vague as they are overbroad. Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry recently delivered a statement emblematic of the vague nature of acceptable online discourse, saying Facebook should cease the “spread of information that violates traditional Vietnamese customs and infringes upon state interests.”

While it is not clear how Facebook can be any more accommodating to the Vietnamese government’s whims and demands, history shows the company will abide by the Vietnamese government’s orders to retain market access.

But that doesn’t mean such laws won’t deter other tech and data-driven that have not yet entered the Vietnamese market.

A Vietnamese activist holds up a phone with the screen displaying an open letter to Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg in Hanoi, April 10, 2018. Photo: AFP

Indeed, there are clear signs that strict and vague cybersecurity laws and regulations on online expression is giving investors pause, with many concerned about the arbitrary application of the provisions.

Investors are also worried about data privacy and data protection, as the growing body of cyber laws give authorities access to all information deemed to be a part of the nation’s critical cyberinfrastructure.

Despite Facebook’s acquiesence, the government is walking a fine line by trying to both attract foreign investors in emerging value-added digital industries while at the same time enforcing a legal regime that invades privacy, curbs information flows and as such is bad for international business.