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Press Release: On the Detention of Our Editorial Board Member Pham Doan Trang

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In the afternoon of November 16, 2016, the Vietnamese police kidnapped a member of The Vietnamese’s editorial board, Pham Doan Trang, almost immediately after she had left the meeting with the EU delegation in Hanoi held earlier that day.

The police had illegally seized her personal property, including her cell phone and laptop, and kept them since. Pham Doan Trang was held incommunicado the entire detention, and legal representation was not allowed.

By midnight, the police escorted Pham Doan Trang back to her home in Hanoi and continued to surveil her, effectively putting her under house arrest.

The meeting with the EU delegation was held right before the commencement of their annual Human Rights Dialogue with Vietnam, which is going to be in early December 2017. During the meeting on November 16, Doan Trang provided the EU delegation with an updates report on Vietnam’s current human rights situation, the report on the Formosa environmental disaster, as well as the latest report on the right to religion in Vietnam.

We strongly condemn the kidnapping, unlawful taking of property and putting Pham Doan Trang under house arrest. These conducts are in direct violation of both Vietnam’s and international laws, and as such, they have put a member of our editorial board in grave danger where both her physical and mental health have been negatively affected, especially when Doan Trang is still undergoing treatment for her previous knees injuries.

We, therefore, demand that the relevant authorities of Vietnam to immediately intervene and cease the ongoing illegal house arrest, investigate the unlawful individual conducts listed above, and prosecute those who have committed such crimes, in accordance to the current legal standards in Vietnam.

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Vietnam: Deputy PM’s Flip-Flopped Position Signaled Government Will Take Tough Measures on Cybersecurity Law?

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Deputy PM Vu Duc Dam. Photo credits: Giao duc Vietnam newspaper.

Once regarded as the poster’s child for – what was hoped by some – the progressive faction within the Communist Party, Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam, had recently shown his allegiance to the Party’s hardlines, at least on the issue of cybersecurity.

As the Vietnam’s National Assembly is currently reviewing the latest Draft Law on Cybersecurity, on November 17, 2017, the 54-year old Deputy PM Dam delivered a passionate speech defending why Vietnamese government must control social networks and limit the numbers of Internet users.

Dam even praised China’s efforts on controlling social media through the use of an Intranet and heavy censorship on search contents.

But just last year, in March 2016, it was also the same man, Deputy PM Dam, who spoke at a World Bank conference and praised technology, pledging his commitment to support an uncensored Internet in Vietnam.

“I want to say that now is not the time to discuss the benefits of digital technology, but to affirm: Though digital technology itself has negative sides, this is not by its own faults but rather by those who use it. Thus, we cannot restrain it because of the negative impact, but must find all means to allow it to grow.”

Would Mr. Dam’s recent change of heart on the issue of Cybersecurity demonstrate the impossibility for Party’s cadres to break free from its political ideology, namely those who are in the Politburo?

Mr. Dam had long been trusted with the tasks of managing the field of Information and Communications in Vietnam. He has also been viewed as an official who’s more open and friendly with the IT community, given his background working at the National Central Bureau of Post Office and had served as the Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Post Office and Telecommunications.

It was as recent as February this year, during a talk with FPT University’s students, Dam recalled how he had met with top technology personnel in the country and advised them that the World’s Fourth Industrial Revolution shall be defined by the term “connection”.

And by connection, Dam meant, “the eight billion equipment which connects at every level, every angle, and does not limit itself to one university, one province, one country but is a global connection. This revolution would have an intimate relationship with technology.”

So what had changed?

What would make a man went from one who believed in the ability for people to have a global “connection” as the core element of the Fourth Industrial Revolution to a defender of government’s Internet censorship, and a supporter of an “Intranet” construction – identical to that of China?

Because now, during his last presentation in front of the National Assembly, Dam also proposed using “technical measures to block, filter or slow down [information] when necessary.”

The people wonder, who is then, the real Vu Duc Dam and what does he really believe in?

If there were any hopes for a progressive faction within the Communist Party, Deputy PM Dam probably would be among the top runners to lead such group.

He was a foreign-educated politician, graduated from university in Brussels, whose popularity rose among the younger population in Vietnam with his English abilities, his support for educational reforms, environmental protection, and his friendliness towards IT community and technology development.

Yet, Dam’s latest speech on the National Assembly’s floor two Fridays ago showed where his true allegiance lies: The Party’s doctrine which values censorship and putting absolute restraints on free speech.

Vietnam was a member of the Human Rights Council last year when a resolution was passed without a vote, to include an addition to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, recognizing the right to Internet access is a human right.

But that obviously did not stop the government to adamantly insist on tougher Cybersecurity Law, one that mirrored China’s laws. Mr. Dam apparently seems to have forgotten it as well during his latest speech, when he insisted that Vietnam would not break any international law standards with its tougher stand on social media and Internet management.

The government has recently claimed boastful records in working with Google and Facebook to successfully remove thousands of content that were deemed to be “anti-State” materials during just this year alone.

Since the Internet was first publicly introduced in Vietnam 20 years ago, now, social media networks have grown to become the main platforms for people to raise their concerns over a number of issues. Many of which would be deemed politically sensitive or even outright dissenting opinions.

No one seems to deny that both the independent civil society movement and the emerging independent media in the country are the results of ordinary people having access to the Internet.

As such, the need for an authoritarian government – like Vietnam – to censor and control the Internet and social media networks is real and urgent.

Deputy PM Dam’s recent defense of the government’s use of technical measures to censor and control the Internet and social media – to some people – adds worries that Vietnam would – by all means – pass the proposed Cybersecurity Draft Law.

To defend the government’s legitimacy and absolute power, the control over the media had never slipped off the Party’s grips. Deputy PM Dam’s stand on the issue of Cybersecurity could give glimpses of the Party’s unanimity on maintaining that control by expanding and strengthening Internet censorship in the country, regardless of how many factions within the Politburo we may think there are.

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Vietnam Government Claims to Work with Google and Facebook to Remove Thousands of Anti-government Content

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Vietnamese activist Anh Chi searches internet at Tu Do (Freedom) cafe in Hanoi, Vietnam August 25, 2017. Picture taken on August 25, 2017. REUTERS/Kham

Vietnam’s head of the Internet management authority, Nguyen Thanh Lam, has repeatedly claimed that the government has been working with Facebook and Google to remove thousands of videos and accounts from these tech giants’ platforms, according to the country’s mainstream media.

During a press conference on July 7, 2017, the former prominent journalist made the announcement that Youtube, a Google’s product, had removed 3,000 video clips that contained “toxic content” and Facebook had also removed 600 accounts that were fake or contained information that distorted individuals and organizations.

Among those 600 accounts are 132 accounts that frequently distorted or smeared the Communist Party, the government, groups, and individuals, VietNamNet reported.

In an interview with VietNamNet, Nguyen Thanh Lam also expressed his appreciation to Google and Facebook for their cooperation with the Vietnam’s government.

“They understand why we made such requests”, said Mr. Nguyen.

Facebook sent Monika Bickert, Head of Global Policy Management, to Vietnam on April 26 to meet with the Minister of Information and Communication Truong Minh Tuan. According to the Vietnam News Agency, Ms. Bickert told the minister that Facebook was willing to cooperate with the Vietnamese government to block toxic content that violates the local laws.

During the meeting, the Facebook’s representative also made a commitment that they would create a separate channel to process Vietnam’s requests.

A month later, Eric Schmidt, the Chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc., met Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in Hanoi. He reportedly said that “Google will cooperate with the government” to prevent and remove bad information on Youtube.

Mr. Nguyen Thanh Lam noted that it had been easier to convince Youtube than Facebook: “There was toxic information that Youtube already removed or blocked but Facebook does not”.

We found no information about Vietnam’s requests in 2017 on Google Transparency Report and Facebook’s Government Requests Report, potentially because they have only released reports until 2016.

The Google’s report shows Vietnam has made five content removal requests to Google since 2010. It is not confirmed that Google has actually cooperated with the Vietnamese government to remove the mentioned contents.

However, the tech giant’s website highlights two content removal requests made by the Vietnamese government. One is a blog that “allegedly contained information about the military and criticized the government”, and one is “to remove search results on a particular word that generated results that contained allegedly unflattering depictions of past Vietnamese leaders.” Google declined both requests.

It has been 20 years since Larry Page and Sergey Brin created Google. It is the same period of which Vietnam has been connected to the Internet. The country currently has approximately 50 million Internet users which amount to more than half of the population, and 45 million Facebook users. Both platforms are the most popular search engine and social network in Vietnam respectively.

Yet, the two tech giants are now considered as real threats to the government as they help people access uncensored information about the communist regime and generate political discussions.

In October 2013, Dinh Nhat Uy – the brother of a jailed activist – was sentenced to one year and three months of probation only for using Facebook to criticize the government.

A prominent human rights activist, blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (Mother Mushroom), was also sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment in June 2017 partly for posting articles that “contain untruthful and baseless information” about the Communist Party and its sole-leadership over the political system of Vietnam.

The government usually uses three internationally-condemned criminal provisions, Article 79, 88 and 258, to put dissidents and activists in jail.

Not only criminalizing online expression, Hanoi also puts administrative sanctions on those who voice their dissents on the Internet. Websites’ owners, social networks, and Internet users may be fined up to US$4,700 for “criticizing the government, the Party or national heroes” or “spreading propaganda and reactionary ideology against the state”

Many Facebook users and bloggers have been fined under these regulations, according to a Freedom House’s report.

It is significant to note that the Vietnamese government has made claims about receiving cooperation from Google and Facebook since early 2017, in the middle of a new crackdown on the democracy movement that has led to at least 16 activists and dissidents being arrested or convicted.

In 2014, Vietnam was named as an enemy of the Internet by Reporters Without Borders, a France-based human rights organization.

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