This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
U.S.-based tech giants Facebook and Google are “complicit in industrial-scale repression” in Vietnam by helping the communist government in Hanoi block content, according to a new report released this week by Amnesty International.
In “’Let us Breathe!’: Censorship and criminalization of online expression in Vietnam”, Amnesty International (AI) documents how the two tech companies abet Hanoi’ suppression of online discourse by blocking content considered to be critical of authorities, while government-linked groups “harass everyday users into silence and fear.”
“In the last decade, the right to freedom of expression flourished on Facebook and YouTube in Vietnam. More recently, however, authorities began focusing on peaceful online expression as an existential threat to the regime,” said Ming Yu Hah, AI’s Deputy Regional Director for Campaigns in a statement.
“Today these platforms have become hunting grounds for censors, military cyber-troops and state-sponsored trolls. The platforms themselves are not merely letting it happen – they’re increasingly complicit,” she said.
AI compiled the report after interviewing dozens of rights activists and defenders and using data from Facebook and Google. Among the interviewees were former prisoners of conscience, lawyers, journalists and writers.
The report highlights how Hanoi detains 170 prisoners of conscience, including 69 who are in prison for their social media activities. The total represents a “significant increase” over the 128 prisoners of conscience estimated by AI in 2018.
AI says the tech companies are more concerned about their bottom line than about human rights. In 2018 Facebook made U.S. $1 billion in Vietnam, or about a third of its total revenue for the Southeast Asian region. Google, meanwhile, made $475 million, mostly from YouTube advertising over the same period.
“Facebook is by far the most popular and profitable platform in Vietnam. Businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights wherever they operate in the world, and Vietnam is no exception,” said Ming Yu Hah.
“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 said.
In April, AI and New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) among other rights groups criticized Facebook’s decision to comply with requests from the Vietnamese government to censor “anti-state” content in Vietnam, after its servers there were held hostage by Hanoi. For about seven weeks, Facebook was often not usable by its 65 million users in Vietnam with its servers offline.
The government argued that the social media platform should “adhere to local laws,” and the rights groups said that Facebook had kowtowed to Hanoi’s “extortion.”
“The decision by Facebook may have far-reaching global consequences, as other repressive governments around the world may now seek to apply a similar strategy by forcing Facebook and other technology companies to restrict online expression,” the report said.
After analyzing Facebook’s latest transparency report on its activities in Vietnam, the report revealed that the social media giant increased content restrictions by 983 percent since its decision to comply with Hanoi went into effect.
Google meanwhile drew fire for similarly restricting YouTube content considered sensitive by Hanoi.
“YouTube is trying to prevent people from telling the truth, even when people are just reporting fact … This affects everyone in society, including victims of human rights violations,” a YouTuber identified in the report as An told AI.
An said that the restrictions on freedom of expression are preventing people from promoting and protecting human rights in Vietnam. “Let us breathe!” the title of the report, comes from An’s sentiments of how silenced Vietnamese feel toward tech companies operating in the country.
The report also documents the experiences of people who were detained for their online activities under Vietnam’s vaguely worded criminal codes.
Many reported that beyond the threats of arbitrary arrest and legal consequences, they are also subject to “brutal physical assault, insidious surveillance and intimidation, harassment of family members and online abuse and bullying,” extra-legal tactics carried out by Communist Party agents or supporters, including people in plainclothes.
A 10,000-strong military unit of “cyber troops” known as “Force 47” routinely harasses and intimidates human rights defenders on both platforms, under a mission of fighting against “wrong views and distorted information on the internet,” the report said.
The report says these troops are reinforced by a volunteer “troll army” made up of civilians who are political supporters of the Communist Party.
Facebook has previously defended its decision to increase compliance with Hanoi’s requests. In April, a company spokesperson told RFA’s Vietnamese Service in an email that it did not agree with Vietnamese censorship laws, but that refusal to comply would result in the platform being effectively blocked in the country.
“The net result of this is even greater restrictions on speech and expression – all voices in Vietnam would be silenced,” the spokesperson said.
According to Google, the company has clear policies for removal requests from governments around the world, as described in its transparency report. Governments notify the company through official processes of content they deem illegal, and the company restricts content after review.
A Google spokesperson told RFA Tuesday that the company declined to comment further on the AI report.
Starting in May, Facebook has to date blocked from its website seven Vietnamese-language RFA reports.
A representative of Facebook told RFA’s Vietnamese Service Tuesday that in the most recent occurrence this week, the content had been removed by mistake and the company was able to restore it even before receiving reports about it.