New year, new repression: Vietnam imposes draconian ‘China-like’ cybersecurity law

  • Internet companies can now be compelled to hand over user data, and must remove content the communist authorities deem inappropriate
  • Critics say the move mimics China’s repressive censorship of the internet and dubbed it ‘a totalitarian model of information control’
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 January, 2019, 4:42pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 January, 2019, 4:42pm

A law requiring internet companies in Vietnam to remove content communist authorities dislike came into effect on Tuesday, in a move critics called “a totalitarian model of information control”.

The new cybersecurity law has received sharp criticism from the US, the EU and internet freedom advocates who say it mimics China’s repressive censorship of the internet.

It requires internet companies to remove content the government regards as “toxic” and compels them to hand over use data if asked to do so.

Tech giants such as Facebook and Google will also have to open representative offices in Vietnam if they wish to continue operating in the country.

The Ministry of Public Security published a draft decree on how the law may be implemented in November, giving companies which offer internet services in Vietnam up to 12 months to comply.

It said the bill was aimed at staving off cyberattacks and weeding out “hostile and reactionary forces” using the internet to stir up violence and dissent, according to a transcript of a question-and-answer session with lawmakers in October.

In response to the law, which was approved by Vietnam’s rubber-stamp parliament last June, Facebook said it is committed to protecting the rights of its users and enabling people to express themselves freely and safely.

“We will remove content that violates [Facebook’s] standards when we are made aware of it,” the company said in a statement, adding that it has a clear process to manage requests from governments around the world.

Hanoi has said Google is taking steps to open up an office in Vietnam to comply with the new law, though the internet giant refused to comment at this stage.

The law also bans internet users in Vietnam from spreading information deemed to be anti-state or anti-government, as well as prohibiting use the internet to distort history and “post false information that could cause confusion and damage to socio-economic activities”.

Critics say online freedom is shrinking under a hardline administration that has been in charge since 2016. Dozens of activists have been jailed at a pace not seen in years.

Human Rights Watch has called on the communist authorities to revise the law and postpone its implementation.

“This law is designed to further enable the Ministry of Public Security’s pervasive surveillance to spot critics, and to deepen the Communist Party’s monopoly on power,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of the NGO.

The law comes into force a week after Vietnam’s Association of Journalists announced a new code of conduct on the use of social media by its members, forbidding reporters to post news, picture and comments that “run counter to” the state.

Daniel Bastard of Reporters Without Borders decried the new requirements for journalists and the cybersecurity law, calling it “a totalitarian model of information control”.

Critics also warn the new internet law – particularly the data-sharing element – will make start-ups think twice about relocating to Vietnam. The country is currently seeking to build a reputation as a Southeast Asian financial technology hub.

How our opinion writers saw Asia’s most polarising stories of 2018