Vietnam: security or surveillance?

Vietnam: security or surveillance?
Vietnamese legislators have passed a new cybersecurity law that will require tech companies to open offices in the country, localise data, and give the government access..

Vietnamese legislators have passed a new cybersecurity law that will require tech companies to open offices in the country, localise data, and give the government access to personal user information.

The new law comes days after widespread protests against plans for new special economic zones which protestors feared would be dominated by Chinese investors.

Background

Vietnam, located in South-East Asia, was colonised by France in 1887. Vietnam declared independence after World War II. However, France continued to rule there until its 1954 defeat by communist forces under Ho Chi Minh. The Vietnam War, which began in 1965, ended in 1973 after the victory of the communist-backed North Vietnam, and the country has remained under communist rule since. The Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) was formed in 1976 with the merger of the Workers Party of North Vietnam and the People’s Revolutionary Party of South Vietnam.

Human rights groups and international observers have noted that human rights in Vietnam have deteriorated in recent years, with severe restrictions on freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, association and movement, and freedom of religion. The Human Rights Watch (HRW) has noted that the CPV has “maintained its control over all public affairs and punished those who challenged its monopoly on power.” This includes the intimidation, harassment, and arrest of journalists and activists. Vietnam prohibits the establishment of independent political parties, labour unions, and human rights organizations.

Social media in Vietnam

In recent years, social media has become an important factor in freedom of speech and expression. According to We Are Social’s Digital in 2017 report, the number of active social media users in Southeast Asia grew by 31% between 2016 and 2017, the equivalent of 72 million new users. Vietnam has over 55 million Facebook users, 62% of the population. Vietnam was the 9th most heavily hit country in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

In 2017, the Vietnamese government hired over 10,000 internet censors called “Force 47” to tackle anti-state propaganda and “wrongful views”. The state claimed that “the enemy takes advantage of the internet to create chaos.” In a recent letter to Facebook, activists called Force 47 “state-sponsored trolls”. They cited a lack of transparency and accused Facebook of enabling Force 47 to curb free speech on the site.

Analysis

On June 12th, Vietnam’s National Assembly passed a new cybersecurity law that will require tech companies operating in Vietnam to store their data about Vietnamese users on local servers. The data localisation clause will also require these companies to provide the Public Security Ministry with user data in cases where the state believes the law has been breached. Businesses will have to open a representative office in Vietnam and remove “offending” content at the government’s request. The law was passed with an 86% approval rating by 423 of the 466 legislators present. It will come into force on January 1st, 2019.

The law also includes phrasing that prevents internet users from gathering people for “anti-state purposes”. It bars users from using the internet to spread misinformation, “distort history,” or “negate the nation’s revolutionary achievements.” It bans discriminatory content and content that causes religious offence.

International and local human rights activists have noted that the law could be used to silence dissenters. Human rights group Amnesty International noted that the law “would give sweeping new powers to the Vietnamese authorities, allowing them to force technology companies to hand over potentially vast amounts of data, including personal information, and to censor users’ posts.” The agency noted that the internet is the primary platform for Vietnamese citizens to share ideas and opinions “with less fear of censure by the authorities.”

Clare Algar, Amnesty International’s Director of Global Operations, added that it could turn tech companies into “state surveillance agents,” and called for the companies to “use the considerable power they have at their disposal to challenge Vietnam’s government on this regressive legislation.”

Business communities have also spoken against the legislation, noting that it could hurt digital innovation in Vietnam. Jeff Paine, Managing Director of Asia Internet Coalition, whose members include Facebook, Google and Twitter, said that the new provisions could result in “severe limitations on Vietnam’s digital economy, dampening the foreign investment climate and hurting opportunities for local businesses and SMEs to flourish inside and beyond Vietnam.” The Vietnam Digital Communications Association estimated that the law could reduce GDP by 1.7% and foreign investment by 3.1%. The Asia-Pacific region was Facebook’s fastest growing region by revenue in 2017.

It could also renege on commitments under the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which prohibits member states from dictating a company’s IT infrastructure location.

Counterpoint

China and Russia have similarly expansive data localization laws. Data localisation laws are present to a limited extent in other countries including Australia (for health records), and South Korea (map data). Vietnamese officials have said that the law will “defend the nation against cyber-attacks" and carry out "a completed and timely institutionalization of the Party's policies" on cybersecurity. Social media has emerged as a major platform for the spread of misinformation in recent years.

The government noted that it could make exceptions for specific WTO agreements, particularly the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), and the CPTPP.

Vietnamese officials have also stated that there is “no such thing as people being arrested for freely expressing opinion” in Vietnam.  They have refuted the “biased” information from rights groups and claimed that they are “ensuring and promoting human rights”.

Assessment

Our assessment is that while it is important to address misinformation and hate speech, Facebook and other social media have become crucial tools of disseminating information and shaping public opinion. By complying with this regulation and providing the government unfettered access to personal data, tech companies would be assisting the state in suppressing freedom of speech. We believe that given rising anti-China sentiment in the country, the new law could inspire fears that the state is following in the footsteps of its authoritarian neighbour. 

Comments