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Facebook under fire for helping Vietnam censor content

Facebook HQ. (eston/Flickr)
April 24, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Facebook came under fire from Vietnamese and international rights activists Wednesday after the social media giant publicly admitted that it had agreed to help communist authorities censor posts critical of the government.

Two Facebook employees told Reuters news agency Tuesday that the company’s local servers in Vietnam were taken offline earlier in the year until the company gave in to the demands of the government to remove posts, a period of about seven weeks when the website was often not usable in Vietnam.

“We believe the action was taken to place significant pressure on us to increase our compliance with legal takedown orders when it comes to content that our users in Vietnam see,” the first of the two Facebook sources told Reuters in a report that stirred anger in the human rights community.

“[Facebook is] helping the Vietnamese communist dictatorship cover up information and control people,” said Trinh Ba Phuong, a Vietnam-based human rights activist.

“I will continue raising this concern to other human rights organizations and the U.S Embassy because Facebook’s actions violate human rights,” he told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.

In a statement condemning Facebook’s decision, Amnesty International Human Rights Advisor William Nee warned that after the example set by the U.S. company, “governments around the world will see this as an open invitation to enlist Facebook in the service of state censorship.”

“The revelation that Facebook is caving in to Vietnam’s far-reaching demands for censorship is a devastating turning point for freedom of expression in Vietnam and beyond,” Nee said in the statement.

“The Vietnamese authorities’ ruthless suppression of freedom of expression is nothing new, but Facebook’s shift in policy makes them complicit,” Nee added.

“It does all tech firms a terrible disservice by making them vulnerable to the same type of pressure and harassment from repressive governments,” Nee added.

Threat of being totally blocked

In an e-mailed statement to RFA on Wednesday, a Facebook company spokesperson confirmed that “the Vietnamese government has instructed us to restrict access to content which it has deemed to be illegal in Vietnam.

“We believe freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, and work hard to protect and defend this important civil liberty around the world,” the spokesperson wrote.

“However, we have taken this action to ensure our services remain available and usable for millions of people in Vietnam, who rely on them every day.”

Sources familiar with Facebook’s approach to Vietnam say the firm follows host-country laws wherever it operates, including government requests to block access to content. In the case of Hanoi, it fears that resisting requests by authorities would result in being entirely blocked in Vietnam, harming small businesses and developers who use Facebook for their work.

AI’s report highlighted how in January Hanoi began an “unprecedented crackdown” on social media in order to prevent open discussion of the Dong Tam land dispute.

RFA reported that month that protests related to the land dispute had flared up violently, leading to the deaths of three policemen and a civilian. RFA’s YouTube channel at that time was taken offline in Vietnam.

AI detailed how the crackdown progressed as COVID-19 began to take hold in Vietnam, saying that 654 people were ordered to appear at police stations across the country for questioning pertaining to Facebook posts about the coronavirus. All of those summoned were forced to delete content they had posted online, and 146 were fined.

“On 15 April, authorities introduced a sweeping new decree, 15/2020, which imposes new penalties on alleged social media content which falls foul of vague and arbitrary restrictions,” said AI in the statement.

“The decree further empowers the government to force tech companies to comply with arbitrary censorship and surveillance measures,” it added.

Vietnam, whose ruling Communist Party controls all media and tolerates no dissent, ranks 175th of 180 countries on the 2020 Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index.

‘Many truths are hidden’

Trinh told RFA that for many of its 65 million users in Vietnam, Facebook is the go-to medium for actual news, because “in Vietnam, all state media and communications are part of the so-called “prolonged arm” of Vietnam’s communist party.”

“[Approved media outlets] publish news in accordance with the Ministry of Information & Communications’ guidance and are controlled strictly from the communist state. Therefore news posted from party newspapers or state media serve only to popularize demagogic policies,” Trinh said.

“Many truths are hidden. So Facebook is [the only] social means for me to raise [my] concerns in this society,” Trinh said.

Trinh said he had used Facebook to discuss the Dong Tam dispute but was shocked when Facebook complied with the Vietnamese government’s censorship requests.

Another activist, Hanoi-based La Viet Dung, told RFA, “Two or three days ago, I posted a video clip recording the moment that Le Dinh Kinh’s relatives received his body from police.”

Le was an elderly community leader killed during the Dong Tam protest in January.

“That clip was shared 2,000 times and drew the attention and wrath of [countless] Facebookers,” said La.

“However, this morning my friends told me that the clip was removed from my Facebook account, and I did not receive any announcement or email from Facebook.”

For La, this is a sharp break from the past, as he said Facebook previously only removed posted content after explaining the removal to the user.

RFA’s Vietnamese Service received a notice from Facebook Monday saying that a Vietnamese-language report about COVID-19, published April 14, was restricted in Vietnam.