Facebook and YouTube are complicit in “censorship and repression on an industrial scale” in Vietnam – that’s the claim advanced in a new report by the rights group Amnesty International, which confirms and fleshes out previous reports about Vietnam’s increasingly assiduous attempts to extend its control over key social media networks.
The 78-page report, which was published on December 1, tracks a steep rise in the number of instances in which the two firms have acceded to government requests to censor “anti-state” content on their platforms.
More than 66 million Vietnamese are on Facebook, giving the country the seventh-largest user base in the world. Along with other tech platforms like YouTube, it constitutes a vibrant public sphere outside the ambit of the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam. But according to the report, this space is imperiled by the tech companies’ increasingly willingness to bow to government requests that they remove politically sensitive content.
“Once the great hope for the expansion of freedom of expression in the country, social media platforms are fast becoming human rights-free zones, where any peaceful dissent or criticism of the Vietnamese government is liable to be censored,” it states. Or worse: according to Amnesty, 69 of Vietnam’s 170 prisoners of conscience are in jail because of their social media activity.
The report dates the tightening to April of this year, when Facebook announced it had agreed to “significantly increase” its compliance with requests from the Vietnamese government to remove “anti-state” posts. As detailed in this Reuters report, the firm justified this policy shift by claiming the Vietnamese authorities were deliberately throttling the speed of traffic to the platform as a warning to the company.
The threat appears to have worked. In October of this year, a minister told Vietnam’s parliament that the tech companies’ compliance with the removal of “bad information, propaganda against the Party and the State” had reached the highest level ever. Facebook was approving 95 percent of the government’s requests to block content, while YouTube complied 90 percent of the time.
According to Facebook’s official transparency report for the first half of 2020 – the first since the introduction of the new policy – the company complied with 834 content restriction requests, a tenfold increase compared with the previous six-month reporting period.
Amnesty puts this the sharp increase down partly to the Vietnamese authorities’ efforts to silence discussions of the high-profile Dong Tam land dispute outside Hanoi. The dispute made international headlines after violent clashes broke out in January 2020 between police and villagers opposing the military’s decision to build an airfield on their land.
Despite approving more than nine out of every 10 complaints, Reuters reported late last month that Vietnam’s government had threatened to shut down Facebook in the country if the social media giant refuses to bow to government pressure to censor more local political content.
Amnesty claims that Vietnam is the first country in Southeast Asia – and possibly the world – where Facebook has “officially acknowledged a policy to increase compliance with censorship of political expression in accordance with a government’s requests.” The group expressed fear that Vietnam’s success in pushing the companies to acquiescence to censorship demands could offer other repressive governments a model for shackling social media. The report quotes one industry observer as stating, “How Google and Facebook deal with Viet Nam could offer clues to how they will protect user privacy and handle calls for censorship in other authoritarian regimes around the world.”
The explanation for the actions of Facebook and Google (which owns YouTube) is simple. In 2018, Facebook’s income from the country neared $1 billion – almost a third of its total revenue from Southeast Asia – while Google brought in $475 million in Vietnam during the same period, mainly from YouTube advertising. The report makes the obvious connection: “The size of these profits underlines the importance of maintaining market access for Facebook and Google in Viet Nam.”
Facebook and Google are businesses, not human rights organizations, and it is hardly surprising, if regrettable, to see them shunting aside fundamental freedoms in pursuit of the bottom line. In this sense, Facebook executives’ depiction of their platform as a bastion of free expression is best seen as a feel-good corporate pablum rather than a real commitment to internationally enshrined freedoms.
Above all, the Amnesty report illustrates the perils of outsourcing the global commons to a handful of unaccountable tech conglomerates whose collusion in censorship is just one among many of the problems they have engendered. Add this to the long list of reasons why they should be broken them up.