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Vietnam activists urge Facebook chief Zuckerberg to stop ‘aggressive practices’ of censoring content

The Southeast Asian country ranks among the social network’s top 10 users and the site is hugely popular among dissidents in a one-party state where independent media is banned

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 April, 2018, 7:43pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 April, 2018, 8:31am

A group of 50 Vietnamese activists and rights organisations have written an open letter to Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg suggesting his company may be colluding with communist authorities to scrub out online dissent.

Vietnam ranks among Facebook’s top 10 users by numbers and the site is hugely popular among dissidents in a one-party state where independent media is banned and blog sites are routinely removed.

The letter to Zuckerberg comes amid deepening controversy at Facebook over privacy and security lapses after the revelation that British firm Cambridge Analytica – which worked with Donald Trump’s campaign – hijacked the data of millions of users.

The social media giant has also faced criticism in recent weeks for being slow to crackdown on posts inciting hatred or violence towards Muslims in Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

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The problem of account suspension and content takedown has only grown more acute
Open letter to Facebook CEO

But democracy activists in Vietnam say they face an opposite problem. The Vietnamese letter to Zuckerberg was signed by 50 organisations, activists and bloggers who said they have seen an uptick in “account suspensions and content takedown” since last year.

Vietnam’s government said in April 2017 that Facebook agreed to remove “bad and malicious” content that violates local laws, including fake news and impostor accounts, but made no explicit mention of anti-regime material.

“It would appear that after this high-profile agreement to coordinate with a government that is known for suppressing expression online and jailing activists, the problem of account suspension and content takedown has only grown more acute,” said the letter published late Monday.

“We urge you to reconsider your company’s aggressive practices that could silence human rights activists and citizen journalists in Vietnam,” it added.

The group said that several Facebook posts were censored last week during a high-profile trial of six democracy activists who were handed heavy sentences for on charges of attempting to overthrow the state.

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Facebook did not deny the allegation, saying in a statement that it has global policy to “remove or restrict access to content” that breaks local laws.

“We have a clear and consistent government request process, which is no different in Vietnam to the rest of the world,” a Facebook spokeswoman said, adding that the firm remains committed to a set of “Community Standards” that outline safe and respectful discourse. 

Vietnamese officials did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

Internet in the country is classified as “not free”, according to web watchdog Freedom House, the worst in Southeast Asia and second only to China in all of Asia. 

Political activist Le Van Son, who signed the letter, told AFP his Facebook page is frequently censored and was taken down temporarily last week after he posted in support of the activists on trial.

“My Facebook account reflects my critical opinions and enables my right to talk about democracy, press freedom and freedom of expression in Vietnam,” said Son.

“I have never violated regulations by posting racy pictures, false information or humiliating others with curse words.”

Vietnam announced last year a 10,000-strong military cyber force tasked with fighting “wrongful views” online.

Activists have said the online brigade, dubbed ‘Force 47’, has flooded their sites with pro-government commentary and harassment.

Unlike in China, Vietnam does not employ a Firewall to block major social media sites, although Facebook access is sometimes interrupted during protests in the country.