When access to Facebook’s Messenger app went intermittent throughout Vietnam on Nov. 4 an unusual occurrence, even in this repressive state netizens were thrown for a loop. “Has it happened already?” some of my Facebook friends asked. Messenger was on the fritz in other countries as well and earlier that day Typhoon Damrey had hit Vietnam’s central coast, hard. Yet some of my friends were attributing the service disruption to something else; a cyber-security bill that made headlines the day before.
The bill was released for public consultation in June but only garnered wide attention recently, when as the National Assembly was reconvening, the Chamber of Commerce stated its objections. The proposed law requires foreign tech giants like Google, Facebook and Skype to set up offices and data servers in Vietnam. Although the National Assembly isn’t expected to vote on the bill until mid 2018, the prospect of it has already sparked fear among internet users, the business community and even some lawmakers.
The government cites growing concerns over cyber security and fake news as reasons to exert more control over social media platforms. But internet access has also served as an outlet for political activism and exposes denouncing corruption and government misconduct. Vietnam has one of the highest rates of social media usage among countries with comparable per capital incomes. There are about 52 Million Facebook active accounts in Vietnam, for a population of about 96 Million people. Google and Youtube also are very popular.
Like China, Vietnam hoped to reign in the internet from the outset. It, too, tried to block Facebook, in 2009, by ordering major local service providers not to carry it. But the government didn’t dare set up firewall outright, for fear of driving away internet business and e-commerce; it permitted certain sites instead of blocking them outright as China had, banking that it could coax them into collaborating as needed. On occasion the Vietnamese Government has asked local service providers to remove certain sites from their list of known hosts, but that is easy enough to skirt by changing domain names. China built its online infrastructure with control for most in mind; the system it developed is now more countrywide intranet than internet. Vietnam’s more mild approach has bred a hybrid infrastructure that keeps developing and adopting faster than the government’s ability to regulate and control it.
One difference is that China is a much larger country, and the domestic market’s economy of scale allowed alternative indigenous platforms, like Weibo or WeChat, to develop. Not so in Vietnam, this country simply doesn’t have the financial or political where withal to match big-time Silicon Valley. Youtube and Facebook now account for two-thirds of the domestic digital media market. The government has at best been able to block Facebook at sensitive moments, such as when President Barack Obama visited Vietnam in May 2016 or during Local Protests over an environmental disaster. But only for a time, because tech savvy Vietnamese internet users have always been able to find workarounds. In 2015, Nguyen Tan Dung then the Prime Minister of Vietnam, said that it was impossible to ban social media and that the government should instead use such platforms to spread its own message. After Mr. Dung fell out of political favor in 2016, the Vietnamese government continued to tolerate Facebook while trying to police information published online. In an effort to seem responsive to the public’s concerns, in 2015 the government set up official facebook pages to stream news conferences after cabinet meetings and announced new policies and regulations.
At the same time, it has deployed groups known as “public opinion shapers” to spread its own views and defend the state against detractors, or what it calls “hostile forces”. Earlier this year, the information ministry issued a circular asking websites, social media and mobile applications with more than one million users in Vietnam to “collaborate” with the authorities and remove “ill-intended and toxic” content, ranging from ads for contraband merchandise or protected wildlife to state secrets. The ministry also asked Google to take down 2,300 youtube clips it said defamed Vietnamese leaders; Google complied in part, removing nearly 1,500. Perhaps emboldened by this measure of success, and by increasing repression of the internet in other Southeast Asian states, the authorities want to go further still. But in our opinion it is far too late for that. The bill currently being discussed, which appears to be modeled after legislation China adopted earlier this year, will only backfire.
In August, President Tran Dai Quang who once headed the Ministry of Public Security, the bill’s main proponent stated the need “to prevent news sites and blogs with bad and dangerous content” partly because online campaigns “undermined the prestige of the leaders of the party and the state.” Yet the proposed law itself may hurt the prestige of the state even more. As some legal experts have pointed out, the bill is too broad, notably because it goes beyond cyber security to lapse into actual control over content. Facebook and Google have also argued that there are ample mechanisms already in place to flag and remove content that violates local laws; and so there is no need to store data locally, which their systems were not designed for anyway. Vietnam routinely draws international criticism for its poor record on human rights, especially free speech for strictly controlling print, radio and television news, and for muzzling bloggers. Passing the internet bill would hardly help its reputation. The law would also fly in the face of Vietnam’s commitments to various trade agreements, including under the World Trade Organization, and would likely unnerve foreign investors.
In November, Vietnam celebrated the 20th anniversary of the internet’s arrival in the country. Blocking ever popular social media platforms now would seem like a retrograde move and to a time of fuller controls that never even was. It would also most certainly trigger a popular backlash. The government sees the internet as a source of instability, but regulating it more strictly may be a source of instability as well and even in an authoritarian state like Vietnam, some measure of popular support is crucial to a regime’s longevity.