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Vietnam’s dysfunctional relationship with the web

Despite repeated attempts to stifle dissent on the internet, Vietnam is set to roll out Decree 72 on 1 Sept

By Helen Clark / 21 August, 2013

(Photo: Shutterstock)

(Photo: Shutterstock)

It has been around a year since Vietnam did something to maintain the title – Enemy of the Internet – that it shares with eight others that include Uzbekistan, Iran and China. Whilst the communist nation has locked up more bloggers so far this year than throughout all of 2012 it is now revisiting last year’s widely derided, and unrealistic, internet draft decree.

The reworked Decree 72, due to come into force September 1, has caused friction as it essentially prohibits people from posting links to news stories, or sections of news articles, on social media sites such as Facebook or the equally popular, locally produced Zing Me.

Pro-democracy websites or those covering religion, politics or human rights have long been blocked. In 2010, Facebook was blocked. A leaked draft regulation requiring ISPs to block the social networking site circulated at the time. The draft was purported to have come from the government, but its veracity was not confirmed. However, access to Facebook quickly became difficult.

A lack of clear mandate from the government and a low-level block meant that people simply fiddled with the DNS settings and claimed the block was down to technical error, not political will. No one took it seriously and the social media site advertised for local staff even when the block was fully in place.

Professor Carl Thayer at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra says that 2009 saw organisation of disparate groups – Catholics, anti-China factions, environmentalists and democracy activists – using Facebook as a rallying area for their shared opposition to Chinese-run bauxite mines in the Central Highlands, an ecologically and politically sensitive area.

However 72 also has something in common with an earlier blog regulation requiring citizens to stick to the personal, and not political themes. As the internet took off in the early- and mid-2000s Yahoo! chat and its blog platform Yahoo! 360 became hugely popular. By 2008 bloggers numbered in the millions. Most writers followed the government’s instructions, though there were scandals that invloved sex bloggers. The Yahoo! blogs also became useful as an alternate news and information source given the state control of media and blocks on sites related to politics, human rights or religion.

At the end of 2008 new blogging regulations limited writings to personal topics. As with Decree 72 posting links to aleady-banned sites was prohibited. The regulation was aimed only at blogs hosted within Vietnam.

“We have issued the circular aiming to create a legal framework to guide bloggers on what can they do and what they can’t do,” said Do Quy Doan, Deputy Minister of Information and Communication, told dpa at the time. The government in fact approached Yahoo! and Google for assistance.

Despite the furore at the time, not much ever came of the regulation, especially since it was designed more as a “guiding document” according to Doan and thus had limited legal use.

In 2010 part of another regulation was aimed at internet service providers and internet cafes. One point required all public computers — those in net cafes popular with teen gamers or hotel foyers — to install Green Dam, a software programme that monitors internet usage.

Unfriendly though it might have been to the idea of internet freedom, it was an ineffective piecemeal approach that quickly fell by the wayside. Those who own internet cafes, which can be found even in one horse towns and are used mostly by boy gamers, have long required background and family checks in order to open.

However Decree 72 goes further, requiring social media users to abstain from posting any news links, even to articles published by state media.

The government has made the point that this new decree is not about restricting freedom of speech but rather aimed at protecting intellectual property. Whilst news sites and blogs repost many news articles without attribution and plagiarism can be a problem in Vietnam it is not Facebook users who are the prime suspects or problem. Website Bao Moi is one of the big aggregators of news in Vietnam and it is not a social media platform.

Those flouting the new law could be more liable for fines than criminal prosecution. Bloggers are more often charged under Article 88 of the penal code, which relates to “conducting propaganda against the state” and can carry a three to 12 year sentence. Prosecuting those who share links or repost from news sites would strain the court and prison systems and fines are easier to issue, argue some.

Vietnam, which often seems to follow China’s security policy, is second only to the nation in the number of dissidents it has detained — 40 in 2013 to date, according to Human Rights Watch.

Vietnam’s government may be an Reporters Without Borders ‘Enemy of the Internet’ but the populace has embraced it, with over a third of the 90-plus million population online. Without government supporting the infrastructure for such growth it could never have happened. Engagement in the ‘knowledge era’ has always been seen as key and broadband was installed up and down the narrow country years ago.

With greater engagement in the world have come issues the government hasn’t been fully equipped to deal with and the internet is the now the main forum for criticism. Whilst the number of genuinely committed political bloggers may be small, the potential not just for critics to organise online but for citizens to share politically compromising material — such as footage of 3000 security police beating and trying to evict farmers from their village to make way for a multi-million dollar development — is huge.

Decree 72 will be largely unenforceable, outside of making the odd example, but it is more realistic than a draft decree on the internet tabled last year that would have required large companies like Google, Yahoo and Facebook to actually host servers within the country and possibly hand user information over to authorities, if asked. ISPs also would have been responsible for content posted on their sites and users would have been required to sign up for accounts with their real names.

The tabled regulation was seen by the foreign business community as a block to further economic growth and global integration. Even decree 72, which is a watered down iteration is expected to “stifle innovation”, according to the Asia Internet Coalition. What may stifle innovation more however is a full and official block of Google and Facebook. According to persistent rumours this will pave the way for local sites or the Russian-owned Coc Coc, which have servers within Vietnam and are more likely to be amenable to government strictures.

As David Brown, who writes regularly on Vietnam’s affairs, pointed out recently in the Asian Sentinel, Vietnam has plenty of ways to deter or stop the more determined political bloggers, such as imprisoning them for tax evasion as in the case of Dieu Cay. However there is the possibility that this may curtail the spread of information by ordinary citizen bloggers with no strong political commitment.

Professor Carl Thayer at the Australian Defense Force Academy in Canberra has said,

“The Decree will have a chilling effect on ordinary bloggers. It is unlikely to prevent more determined internet activists from continuing to post blogs.”

Most recently the government has been discussing policy regarding free chat apps like Viber or Whatsapp. Cell phones have long had huge market penetration and smart phones have been hugely popular in recent years also. Though the word ‘ban’ has been used in state media reports it is apparently linked to revenue losses for local teclos. There is little further information though how, why and when have not been made clear.

This article was originally published on 21 Aug 2013 at indexoncensorship.org.

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About Helen Clark

Helen Clark is a freelance writer based in Australia

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