For popular Western internet companies with large user bases in Vietnam, new online regulations could seriously test business practices and corporate consciences. Driven by worries of an Arab spring, the communist government in Hanoi is planning to introduce rules in June requiring Google, Facebook and other companies providing “online social networking platforms” to locate their Vietnam-related operations entirely inside the country and follow local censorship laws.
Vietnamese authorities have for years been wary of the increased political space available online, where netizens can essentially access and publish information as they wish. Dozens of prominent bloggers are currently in jail for so-called anti-state propaganda and other national security charges. Beyond these most vocal critics are an estimated 30 million internet users in Vietnam – a full third of the population – engaging in various forms of online expression and association.
By operating “offshore,” Google, for example, has been relatively immune from pressure to restrict search results queried by users in Vietnam. Similarly, Facebook, with over 3 million Vietnamese users, doesn’t limit the interactions of these users to everyone else on the massive social network.
To be sure, the Vietnamese authorities have tried to block access to outside websites, most notably Facebook. But with a little knowledge of circumvention and a taste for civil disobedience, many Vietnamese netizens have quickly bypassed the firewalls and actively participated in social networking, creating a virtual civil society online.
The draft policy, which was obtained by Viet Tan, is titled “Decree on the Management, Provision, Use of Internet Services and Information Content Online.” Like many government directives in Vietnam, much of the language in this document is vague and ill-defined, offering multiple interpretations and possible arbitrary implementation by authorities.
What’s clear is the Internet management policy forbids a wide range of activities online such as “abusing the Internet” to oppose the socialist government, “exposing government secrets” and “spreading slanderous information” harmful to organizations and individuals. The draconian language essentially makes it illegal to post anything online critical of the Vietnamese communist party and state, its policies or leaders.
While previous internet regulations in Vietnam contained similar prohibitions, the new policy goes further on implementation by specifically requiring foreign companies to assist authorities police the internet. Western firms would be directly responsible to Hanoi's Information and Communications Ministry, which oversees censorship and the Public Security Ministry, which routinely arrests bloggers and other activists.
To ensure companies such as Google and Facebook fall under Vietnamese law, the new decree requires these companies to open a local office and furnish the names and contacts details of their corporate officials.
Most worrying, the soon-to-be-issued decree appears to require foreign internet companies to house their data centers in Vietnam. Operating as censors and not technologists, the drafters of the regulation have probably not thought through the ramifications.
Companies spend a lot of resources to decide where to locate their data centers. Mandating foreign enterprises to relocate data centers or even individual servers to Vietnam harms businesses by causing logistical and technical challenges. At worst, it would discourage companies from operating in Vietnam to begin with, leaving end users with less choice.
Speaking on similar restrictions in China in 2010, Google public policy director Robert Boorstin summed up the problem: “censorship is a trade barrier.”
By entering into negotiations for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with the United States and other countries, Vietnam is ostensibly committed to trade liberalization and commercial best practices. Politically driven regulations would set the country backward and not be consistent with free trade.
Aiding censorship also poses thorny moral dilemmas for companies. Yahoo has had to apologize and financially compensate Chinese dissidents who were arrested partly due to the private user information that the company turned over to Chinese security police.
To its credit, Yahoo has made amends by enacting a global business and human rights program. Probably because of its reluctance to again compromise the safety and privacy of its users, Yahoo was recently criticized by Vietnamese state media for sticking to international norms even though it maintains an in-country office, the only major Western internet company to do so.
Speaking to a government newspaper on April 9, an official from the Information and Communications Ministry highlighted Yahoo’s perceived noncompliance to argue why stricter internet management policies are required. This follows threats from authorities to tax Western internet companies that attract Vietnam-based users.
When it comes to online censorship, the interests of the human rights community and companies in the information and communications technology sector are clearly aligned. These key stakeholders should continue to impress on the Vietnam authorities the political and economic consequences of internet censorship.
As stated by Google’s Boorstin: “The premise is simple. In addition to infringing human rights, governments that block the free flow of information on the Internet are also blocking trade and economic growth.”
Duy Hoang is a U.S.-based leader of Viet Tan, an unsanctioned pro-democracy political party in Vietnam.