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

Quynh-Vi Tran
Quynh-Vi Tran

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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Quynh-Vi Tran

Quynh-Vi was a litigation lawyer in California before becoming a democracy advocate and journalist in 2015. She is also a strong advocate for abolishing the death penalty.