Vietnam Mulls Rules That Would Compel Facebook, Google to Censor Data

April 13, 2012 - 4:20 AM

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(CNSNews.com) – Vietnam’s communist government is considering draft regulations that would compel companies like Facebook and Google to cooperate with the authorities in censoring content, and may force them to locate data centers in the country, according to a banned Vietnamese opposition group.

All Internet users will be required to use real names and other personal data online, effectively prohibiting people from blogging or commenting safely on sensitive subjects.

A range of activities will be prohibited, including “abusing the Internet” to oppose government policies, “exposing government secrets” and “spreading slanderous information,” according to Viet Tan (the Vietnam Reform Party), which says it promotes peaceful change to a multiparty democracy.

“The draconian language essentially makes its illegal to post anything online critical of the Vietnamese communist party and state, its policies or leaders,” the group said.

Personal blogs will not have to be registered, but will have to make public names and contact details of the person responsible for the site. Bloggers will be held personally responsible for all published content on their sites.

The proposed regulations also require all Web sites providing news articles to be approved by the government, and site administrators will have to report to the authorities any instances of prohibited online activities.

Entitled “Decree on the Management, Provision, Use of Internet Services and Information Content Online,” the draft document was released by the Ministry of Information and Communications several days ago and is expected to be formalized by the prime minister in June, according to Viet Tan.

“Like many government directives in Vietnam, the language in this document is vague and ill-defined, leading to multiple interpretations and possible arbitrary implementation by authorities.”

If implemented the new rules would have a huge impact in the Southeast Asian country, where about one-third of the population – 30.5 million people – use the Internet and more than three million use Facebook. Google’s Vietnamese service is the most popular search engine by far, according to the Vietnam News Service.

Up to now, the fact Internet companies do not have their data centers in the country has “allowed companies such as Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook to avoid complying with Hanoi government censors,” said Viet Tan.

The new decree appears to require such companies to set up local offices and, according to articles in state media, presumably to house data centers inside the country as well.

Viet Tan said while it found the decree’s wording on this requirement unclear, “the Hanoi authorities are stepping up efforts to force foreign Internet companies to operate under Vietnamese law.”

Companies that provide blogging, chat and other “social networking platforms will be forced to “provide information and cooperate with Vietnamese government agencies” to address those activities that are prohibited by the decree (i.e., “abusing the Internet” to oppose government policies etc.)

Viet Tan said there was no reason foreign companies should voluntarily comply with the new restrictions.

“We urge Internet companies to oppose this decree and continue providing online platforms to the Vietnamese market in ways that are consistent with their corporate social responsibility,” it said.

Facebook and Google did not respond immediately to queries sent to their press offices on Thursday.

‘Internationally recognized laws and standards’

In late 2008 a number of large U.S. companies, including Google, Microsoft and Yahoo, signed up to a pledges to uphold privacy and freedom of expression when operating in repressive environments like Vietnam and China.

The Internet giants joined other tech firms, press freedom organizations and academics in a Global Network Initiative (GNI), aimed at helping companies protect privacy and freedom of expression when they encounter laws and policies that interfere with those rights.

The principles they signed up to included commitments to respect and protect freedom of expression and privacy rights of users when confronted with government demands or laws that compromise privacy or suppress freedom of expression “in a manner inconsistent with internationally recognized laws and standards.”

The GNI arose after companies came under criticism over their operations in China in particular, where they have been accused of colluding with restrictive policies.

Yahoo was accused of providing authorities with personal user information later used in trials of “cyber dissidents” jailed for using the Internet to question government policies. Google and Microsoft were also criticized for cooperating with Chinese censorship efforts.

The companies said they were merely complying with local laws, but mounting pressure saw Congress hold hearings on the matter and the Bush administration in 2006 launch a taskforce on global Internet freedom.

‘Serious, ongoing violations’

This will not be the first time Vietnam has sought to restrict online activity. In 2009 the government introduced regulations prohibiting bloggers from disseminate press reports – blogs were restricted to providing personal information – and requiring blog platform hosts to provide information about the activities of their clients every six months, or at the government’s request.

The free press advocacy group Reporters Without Borders has labeled Vietnam an “enemy of the Internet” for its restrictions on online activities. (Others so designated are China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Burma, North Korea, Cuba, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.)

The group says at least 19 journalists, bloggers and cyberactivists are currently incarcerated for offenses linked to the Internet.

Vietnam in recent years has been reaping the benefits of dramatically improved diplomatic, trade and military relations with the United States. But critics say the communist authorities continue to restrict freedom of expression and religion – and are getting away with it.

Bilateral ties began improving significantly after President Clinton in 2000 became the first president to visit the country since the Vietnam War. The Bush administration in 2006 granted Hanoi permanent normal trade relations, paving the way for its accession to the World Trade Organization the following year.

The process has accelerated under the Obama administration. Vietnam is one of nine negotiating partners in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an envisaged pact President Obama has described as “our most ambitious trade agreement yet.” Apart from Brunei, an Islamic sultanate, Vietnam is the only TPP partner that is not a democracy.

In January, six lawmakers – Republican and Democrat – in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged the State Department to strengthen its reporting on Vietnam in its next annual report on human rights around the world (a report that is now seven weeks overdue).

“It is appalling that the Administration is moving to strengthen ties with Vietnam given the serious, ongoing human rights violations occurring in that country,” they wrote.