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Human Rights

Vietnam’s Cybersecurity Draft Law: Made in China?

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Photo credit: Asia Times.

During the first part of last year’s November, the National Assembly of China passed the Law on Cybersecurity and established its effective date to be June 1, 2017.

Then come June 2017, five days after said law went into effect in China, the Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security (MPS) sent their own proposal regarding a draft of the Cybersecurity Law to the Vietnamese government. It has been claimed that this draft law was the result of a legislative process which began to take place since July 2016, when the National Assembly scheduled Cybersecurity Law as one of its agenda’s items then. The MPS then also established their own drafting team and an editing group to work on the drafts of Vietnam’s Cybersecurity Law in late March this year.

After going through various collections of public comments and four draft versions of the law, the final draft (Draft Law) now is in the hands of the National Assemblymen and women. It would be among the items to be discussed when they meet at the end of 2017, and if all things go according to plan, Vietnam’s Cybersecurity Law will get approved and signed into laws by the middle of next year.

Yet, whether purposefully or unintentionally, Vietnam’s Draft Law has shocked many people because it is almost identical to that of China’s.

In their proposal submitted to the government, the MPS stressed that they have researched, and thus taken into considerations Cybersecurity laws from China, Japan, the Czech Republic, South Korea, and the U.S when drafting the Draft Law.

I have to make it clear that I do not have any evidence to conclude the Vietnamese government has indeed copied China’s Cybersecurity Law. Moreover, if both countries are functioning under an identical political system, then the use of identical legislative tools would be very understandable. This is even more likely when the MPS openly admitted that they have considered Chinese laws as stated. Besides, copying or learning from other countries’ legislative experiences do not necessarily mean negative consequences.

However, let’s just go straight to comparing Vietnam’s 4th draft of the Cybersecurity Law currently sitting on the desks of the National Assembly’s members and the English translation of the Chinese laws, to see how much they are alike to one another, and whether such similarities will bring negative consequences to Vietnamese people.

1. Two documents, one technical term

There is one technical term in the Vietnamese Draft Law that one should pay close attention to, which is the “critical information system regarding national security” in Article 9.

In the China’s version, there is a similar technical term: “critical information infrastructure” in Article 31.

Both laws centered on these two technical terms, and their definitions are also very much alike. Both are used to define any information, that if being under attack, they would bring harms to national security, social order and public safety.

That information – as mentioned in both Vietnam’s and China’s Cybersecurity Law – would then include energy, finance, transportation, media, and publications, as well as electronic governance.

However, the Draft Law of Vietnam also includes military-security, national secrets, banking, natural resources and environment, chemicals, medicine, and other national security structures.

The Draft Law also does not distinguish between private companies and government agencies when applying the concept of “critical information system regarding national security”. Based on the context of said law’s wordings, the targeted entities are implied to be both of them. The government and the enforcing authorities could also interpret this law as broad as possible.

Baker & McKenzie, in their analysis of the Chinese Cybersecurity Law, has warned all companies whose may have established relationships with those entities which fall under the regulatory perimeters of said law, that this law could very well be applicable to them.

The agencies and enterprises who are within the application of this law shall abide the technical measures and regulations as set by the government, and submit themselves to be under the direct control and observation of the MPS. They will have to obtain all necessary business permits to operate and maintain their equipment while at the same time, must cooperate with the authorities in monitoring users’ information.

These regulations between Vietnam and China are identical.

2. Directly target information considered to be dangerous to the regime

It is not surprising to learn that both Vietnam and China are extremely concerned about cybersecurity.

As detailed in the proposal from the MPS, the Draft Law of Vietnam focuses on underlining the importance of “preventing, fighting against, and neutralizing all activities using cyberspace to intrude national security; subverting against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam; propagandizing to destroy the ideology, the internal affairs, and the common national unification; inciting mass protests; and obstructing cybersecurity, from the reactionary forces and those who are enemies of the State”.

Further, Article 22 of the Draft Law clearly states that the Vietnamese government would apply all necessary technical methods to treat such information.

Article 12 of the Chinese Cybersecurity Law has a similar provision when it prohibits Internet users from using “the network to engage in activities endangering national security, national honor, and interests, inciting subversion of national sovereignty, the overturn of the socialist system, inciting separatism, undermining national unity, advocating terrorism or extremism, inciting ethnic hatred and ethnic discrimination, disseminating violent, obscene or sexual information, creating or disseminating false information to disrupt the economic or social order, as well as infringing on the reputation, privacy, intellectual property or other lawful rights and interests of others, and other such acts”.

3. Requiring all Internet users to provide true identity

Article 47 of the Vietnamese Draft Law specifically demands all Internet service providers to require “users to provide true and correct personal information. If any user refuses to comply, the service providers shall have the responsibility to deny that user service”.

At the same time, Internet service providers must establish their own verification system to ensure the accuracy and veracity of the information provided by the service users according to Article 33.

Article 24 of the Chinese Cybersecurity Law has the same language as those contained in the Vietnamese Draft Law’s Article 47.

Once businesses and the State can obtain users’ detailed personal information, there will be no guaranty that they would not use it for improper purposes, and would not harm such users.

4. The server is required to be localized within Vietnam’s territory and the providers will have to transmit their data overseas

This requirement has proven to be the most controversial in the past few days among the public in Vietnam.

Article 34 of the Draft Law requires “foreign corporations and providers, in order to provide telecommunications and Internet services in Vietnam, must … obtain business permits to operate, maintain a local representative agency, and the server which manages Vietnamese users’ data shall be stored within the national territory of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam”.

Article 48 further provides, all personal information and important data concerning national security shall be stored within the national territory of Vietnam. In the event that someone wants to transfer such information overseas, then a security assessment shall be performed according to the related governmental agencies’ requirements.

These rules and regulations have caused many Vietnamese concerns, that Google, Facebook, other social media platforms, email providers, and cloud computing service providers will soon pack up and leave Vietnam’s market.

Surprisingly, Article 37 of the Chinese version also provides for similar regulations as the two above-mentioned Draft Law’s articles.

As recent as this past June, tech giant Apple had to cooperate with a Chinese corporation to invest in a database center to comply with this specific provision. Microsoft, IBM, and Amazon had complied as well.

5. Forcing users and providers to act as informants

If the Draft Law gets passed into law, Internet users, telecom and Internet providers must cooperate thoroughly with the government.

Article 45 requires those who engage in activities using cyberspace must strictly comply with the government’s guidelines and shall allow the government to enforce their cybersecurity’s measures and safeguards.

Moreover, all service providers must work with the government to provide actual identities of those Internet users, while at the same time, shall have the responsibility to fend off all information which is deemed to be detrimental to the State, according to Articles 46 and 47.

Again, we find the same regulating language in China’s Cybersecurity Law. This time is located at Article 28, which demands that “network operators shall provide technical support and assistance to public security organs’ and state security organs; lawful activities preserving national security and investigating crimes”.

6. Forcing tech companies to follow government’s technical standards

Article 46 mandates all businesses involved in the production and putting in commerce digital products, as well as providing Internet services, shall be in accordance with the provisions of laws and with the “mandatory quality assurance of State standards”, before releasing their products to the market.

The State also shall pass laws which set the standards for the hardware and software to be used with the above-mentioned technical measures, as well as make sure that the applicable entities shall comply.

This provision also serves as the legal basis for the State to enact the necessary decrees and orders, regulating the specificity of the technical measures mentioned and how to enforce such measures.

Compare to China, the Chinese government had required all new computers to be pre-installed with the automatic content-control software – Green Dam – and also forced businesses, including Google, to have this software installed on all their computers.

The fact that the Vietnamese government had become increasingly more and more interfering with the technical measures regarding the high-tech market highlights the fact that it has opened the doors for corruption and abuse of power from the MPS, the Ministry of Defense (MOD), Ministry of Science and Technology, and other related governmental agencies.

7. Forcing all entities that have relations with “critical information” to be evaluated by the State when buying hardware and software.

Articles 11, 16, and 48 of the Draft Law gives the MPS, the MOD, and other State’s agencies, the authority to review equipment, networks products, and services which may be related to the national critical data system before they could be put into use or upgrade.

This is similar to Article 35 of China’s Cybersecurity Law.

Accordingly, this regulation means that any governmental agency or private business – who maintains an information system which related to energy, national finance, banking, transportation, chemicals, medicine, natural resources and environment, media, news and publishing, shall go through the MPS and/or the MOD when purchasing the necessary hardware, software, Internet service provider for their operation.

It probably makes sense to see this regulation being applied to government’s agencies, but the fact that it is stepping into fields such as banking, medicine, news, and publishing, raises questions about the State’s ambition in controlling information in society at large.

These regulations would grant the police and military the all-access key to both government’s agencies’ and private businesses’ hardware and software. This would be an opportunity for them to exert pressure on other agencies, businesses, as well as putting the whole society at risk for corruption and abuse of power.

The above were only seven strikingly obvious similarities between the Vietnam’s Draft Law and China’s Cybersecurity Law. With an in-depth reading of both documents, one probably finds, even though smaller, much more alike features.

This article is translated into English by Tran Vi from the article “Dự luật An ninh mạng: Hàng Việt Nam ‘Made in China’?“ that was published on Luat Khoa magazine on November 4th, 2017.

Land Rights

Tensions Mount in Aftermath of Attack on Dong Tam Village

Leader Le Dinh Kinh killed, wife tortured, and 22 others charged, as civil society demands answers from government

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As details and testimonies slowly emerge from Dong Tam after a surprise government raid early the morning of January 9, tensions between officials and civil society activists continue to mount as the two groups fight to clarify events that led to the deaths of 84-year-old village leader Le Dinh Kinh and three police officers, as well as the arrest of more than 30 villagers.

Compounding tensions is the fact that Vietnam is a one-party authoritarian state in which all official news, press, and media outlets are controlled by a single communist party. Citizen-journalists make ample use of social media to counter the systemic bias, as the general population struggles to establish the facts.

State media announced yesterday that 22 individuals have been charged: 20 for murder, including two of Kinh’s sons, Le Dinh Chuc and Le Dinh Cong, as well as 2 others for obstruction of officials. Murder is among the most serious charges of the Vietnamese penal code, with punishment ranging up to and including the death penalty.

The clash in Dong Tam was the culmination of a land dispute that had been simmering for years over private farmland earmarked for a military airport (Mieu Mon). Experts state that land disputes in Vietnam have become increasingly common, at Loc Hung garden in Ho Chi Minh City most recently, due to the ambiguous laws that the ostensibly “communist” country has enacted regarding land ownership.

According to villager testimonies, around 3 AM the morning of January 9, 2020, approximately 3,000 officers from the police, riot, and armed forces carrying clubs, sticks, guns, shields, and tear gas grenades poured into Dong Tam village (My Duc suburban district, Hanoi), targeting village leader Le Dinh Kinh’s house.

Collecting eyewitness accounts, citizen-journalist and activist Pham Doan Trang explained: “as violent skirmishes broke out, police used an explosive charge to blow a hole into village leader Kinh’s house, all while firing bullets and tear gas. Other officers tightly sealed off all the paths and alleyways in the village and used German shepherds to hunt down ‘culprits’. The villagers responded with rocks and Molotov cocktails. Police completely collapsed the roof of Le Dinh Kinh’s house and more than 30 members of his extended family were taken away.”

Trang reports that the Dong Tam area is currently under complete lockdown and no independent journalists have been allowed in, noting state media outlets simultaneously began reporting the same story January 9, citing a single source: Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security. The brief statement from the ministry stated that a number of officers ‘sacrificed themselves’ in the line of duty, while one ‘hostile culprit’ died.

It was not until January 10 that state media identified the “hostile culprit” as village leader Le Dinh Kinh himself, who was accused of leading a mob of villagers to “obstruct officials” who were working on constructing a wall delineating Mieu Mon Airport. Officials did not explain why this work was being done at four in the morning, nor why 3000 officers were present in the village rather than closer to the Mieu Mon work site, a few kilometers away. Officials handed over Kinh’s body to villagers the same day (January 10).

Security footage showing numerous riot police marching through Dong Tam, early on the morning of January 9. Photo: Trinh Ba Tu

Luong Tam Quang, deputy head of the Ministry of Public Security, explained at a press conference January 14 that Kinh was shot because he was “holding a grenade” and posed a threat to security forces. Quang, however, confirmed that the Ministry of Public Security did not have an arrest warrant for anyone when police stormed Kinh’s private residence.

Kinh’s wife, Du Thi Thanh, told land rights activist Trinh Ba Tu that Kinh was shot right in front of her, twice in the head, once in the heart, and once in the left foot. A viral video of Kinh’s body on social media showed a single bullet hole near his heart, and an unexplained long surgical scar down his abdomen.

Kinh’s funeral was held January 13, but the area of Dong Tam remained under high security, with the internet cut. Little to no footage of the funeral is available, and supporters were largely prevented from attending.

Public outpouring of support for Kinh has been swift on social media, with many seeing him as a exemplary moral leader who consistently fought for the weak. In his lifetime, Kinh was a peasant farmer, a revolutionary soldier who had fought against the Americans, a Communist Party member at 20, head of police in his village, and both party secretary and chairman of the village’s Party committee in the 1980s.

That the Vietnamese government has killed a model Party member has intellectuals commenting on the inherent symbolism, stating Kinh’s murder represented the communist regime “digging its own grave”.

Kinh’s wife, Du Thi Thanh, herself suffered harsh mistreatment from the authorities, and in a surreptitiously recorded video that has spread on social media, she details how police slapped and kicked her repeatedly to force her to falsely confess to using grenades and petrol bombs.

Kinh’s wife, Du Thi Thanh, explains how police repeatedly slapped and kicked her to force her to sign a false confession.

Her son Le Dinh Cong, adopted daughter Bui Thi Noi, and her grandchildren Le Dinh Doanh and Le Dinh Quang are also likely victims of forced confessions, as their battered images appeared on state television January 13, stoically confessing to making petrol bombs and other weapons to attack police. They admitted they had broken the law, even implicating prominent activist Nguyen Anh Tuan and blogger Le Dung Vova in encouraging “anti-state” activities.

All four subjects were covered in scrapes, black eyes, bruises, and swellings, and looked down as they spoke during the entire recording, appearing to be reading from statements off-camera.

Forced scripted confessions, particularly those aired on state television, are common in authoritarian regimes, like Vietnam, China, and North Korea.

State media also reported that Le Dinh Chuc, Le Dinh Kinh’s second son, is laying in a hospital; his condition is unknown.

The January 14 press conference further identified the three police officers killed in the raid as: Colonel Nguyen Huy Thinh, Captain Pham Cong Huy, and Lieutenant Duong Duc Hoang Quan.

After days of state media reporting that the villagers attacked and killed the officers by grenades, knives and petrol bombs, deputy head Quang admitted that the three individuals had fallen down a four-meter skylight in Kinh’s residence while pursuing suspects. He alleges that Dong Tam residents, upon seeing the officers in the well, poured gasoline and lit them on fire.

All three officers have been given posthumous awards and the honorary title of “martyr” by President and Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong for their service.

Vietnam has cracked down on those challenging the official narrative, and according to citizen-journalist Pham Doan Trang, the government has arrested people in Can Tho, Quang Ngai, and Dak Nong for posting online about the event. She also notes that land rights activists (and brothers) Trinh Ba Tu and Trinh Ba Phuong, who are in direct contact with the Dong Tam villagers and have worked to smuggle information out, are currently at high risk of arrest.

Facebook itself is now complicit in the oppression, activists say , as the government—using a cybersecurity law it passed in 2018—has succeeded in pressuring the company to remove videos and posts regarding the Dong Tam attack; Vietnam’s own online army has succeeded in bringing down some activists’ profiles through coordinated campaigns.

An example of a notification that users in Vietnam see for “banned” content. Photo: Dinh Thao

Vietnamese civil society organizations have responded accordingly, organizing several campaigns to bring awareness to the event, as well as pressure the Vietnamese government to address inconsistencies and unknowns in the government’s “evolving” narrative.

Luat Khoa Magazine, an independent journal that covers legal and political issues in Vietnam, has mailed a letter to To Lam, head of Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security with a list of fundamental legal questions for Mr. Lam to answer (English translation here), while a nationwide, weeklong “Pray for Dong Tam” color campaign launched Sunday, Jan 12, calling for calm, mourning, and an objective investigation into what transpired January 9 (English translation here).

Perhaps most significantly, the “Dong Tam Task Force”, an ad hoc organization established by leading Vietnamese activists, launched January 13 to organize, coordinate, and facilitate fact-finding in the Dong Tam attack (English translation here). It also aims to protect the remaining village witnesses from further government harassment and arrest.

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Land Rights

Long-simmering Land Dispute in Hanoi Suburb Explodes in Violence, Killing 4

In scenes resembling a war zone, Dong Tam villagers vow to fight to the death to resist “corrupt” land reclamation

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Amid sounds of explosions, screams, and gunfire, the villagers of Dong Tam, a rural commune 35 km southwest of Hanoi, clashed with Vietnamese police in the early morning hours of January 9, killing three police and one civilian, state-controlled media reported this afternoon.

According to the BBC, at 4 AM, police cordoned off Dong Tam in coordination with local ground forces and forcefully reclaimed 59 hectares of land from villagers who had battened down the hatches in anticipation of the move. The villagers, who were never officially notified but had only heard through unofficial channels, declared in video recorded an hour before the attack that they would “fight to the death”.

In a message to fellow Vietnamese citizens, a villager of Dong Tam states that the government is shooting at them. He declares that the villagers will “fight to the death”. Nguyen Anh Tuan

The land had been earmarked since 1980 to form a part of the Mieu Mon military airfield, but in 2015, the plan was expanded to take up more nearby farming land and generalized to become an airport.

Citizen-blogger social media reports say police burst into the village with tear gas and grenades filled with plastic ball bearings, and descended upon village leader Le Dinh Kinh’s house, shooting and killing one individual, who remains unidentified as of this report.

Le Dinh Kinh and his son Le Dinh Cong have served as village representatives during repeated land disputes with the government. Media outlets have been unable to reach Le Dinh Cong for comment, but villagers say Cong’s family is in police custody and his father Kinh had gone into hiding a few days prior to the showdown. Prominent activist Anh Chi says those in custody include at least Cong’s daughter-in-law and two other family members.

Village leaders direct statements to the country and to the world at 3 AM, January 9, an hour before police descend on Dong Tam village, demanding justice and protection against government oppression. Nguyen Anh Tuan

Another witness describes “thousands of police officers rushing into the village” using flash grenades, firing tear gas, shooting rubber bullets, blocking off all pathways and alleys, and beating villagers indiscriminately, including women and old people. The witness stated that electricity to the village has not been cut, but the internet has.

According to state media, which quotes an official statement from the Ministry of Public Security, it was villagers who attacked police with “grenades, petrol bombs, and knives” as officials tried to erect a wall delineating Mieu Mon airport. The statement accuses villagers of obstructing official duties and “disturbing public order”, a catch-all often used to describe anti-government actions in Vietnam.

Dong Tam previously made international headlines in April 2017 when it held hostage 38 government officials and police officers in another land dispute with Viettel, a military-owned telecommunications company.

According to VNExpress, 46 hectares were granted to Viettel in March of 2015, only for villagers to complain to the government in June of 2016 that the land was being taken away from farming. Villagers were able to successfully fight off land reclamation from late 2016 until February 2017.

The land dispute came to a head in April 2017 when villagers captured more than three dozen officials and police and held them hostage as leverage for government dialogue. All hostages were released by April 22, after the mayor of Hanoi, major-general Nguyen Duc Chung, came to negotiate with villagers personally.

The villagers of Dong Tam, in a past meeting regarding the land dispute. Le Dinh Cong sits in green, first row, farthest right. His father Le Dinh Kinh sits two seats to the left, in peach. BBC Vietnamese

Vietnamese activists and experts believe the central conundrum causing Vietnam’s land disputes lays in the country’s political regime: “how [does one] allocate land in a Communist country that allows quasi-private ownership rights but still considers all land to be state property”?

According to the NYTimes, “[i]n 2013, Vietnam tweaked its land law in ways meant to introduce more transparency into eminent domain [i.e. government land reclamation] cases. […] But experts say land disputes continue, in part, because the 2013 revisions do not allow private ownership or set clear definitions of what qualifies as the public interest in eminent domain cases.”

Mike Ives of the NYTimes reports further: “[l]and disputes are common on the fringes of Vietnamese urban areas, where land values are often high; villagers are typically compensated at prices well below market rates for agricultural land that is later rezoned for other uses. John Gillespie, a professor at Monash University in Australia who is an expert on land reform in Vietnam, said in an interview that the disputes tended to be more violent when villagers perceived that business interests outweighed public ones.”

Dong Tam, with a population of around 9,000, continues to be under siege, according to social media reports. All parties involved remain on edge, with activist Anh Chi stating that “Tuan Ngo, one of lawyers helping the villagers, came to Dong Tam but was stopped outside. He was threatened to be arrested by a man in plainclothes with aggressive words.”

Images of one of the police officers killed in the clash have also begun circulating on social media, with those on both sides of the land dispute expressing sympathy. Nhu Quynh, whose 27-year old husband appears to have been involved at Dong Tam, inadvertently revealed in her caption that 3000 police officers were deployed. The image (screencaptured below) has since been taken down.

Translated post: “Oh, my husband!!! Of 3 thousand officers, why did it have to be you?” The Vietnamese

Le Dung Vova, a well-known activist and writer has stated of land disputes in Vietnam: “Things will not stop at Dong Tam. […] Similar incidents will keep happening everywhere [as in Loc Hung Garden], with different levels of intensity, especially as land resources become more scarce.”

Update: BBC News has reported that Dong Tam’s leader Le Dinh Kinh has passed away January 10, after clashing with government forces in the early morning hours of January 9.

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Free Press

Minister of Propaganda Says Vietnam’s Press Should Serve Party, Prevent “Self-Evolution”

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At a conference on “Strengthening Party-building Work in Press Organizations” last Friday, Mr. Vo Van Thuong, head of Communist Vietnam’s Central Propaganda Committee, reminded attendees that the press must serve the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) and the revolution in order to function “stably” and “without error”. 

Referring to a government plan ratified earlier in the year to develop and manage press throughout the country until 2025, Thuong stated that the time for debate had passed and that strict implementation was now key. According to state media and in sentiment echoed by Thuong, the press serves as “an important channel to fight against incorrect information, fake news, news critical of the regime, and that which makes people lose trust in the Party-State.”

In his remarks at the conference, Thuong stressed the importance of ideological work in press organizations and making sure Party cadres and Party members guard against signs of political, ideological, and moral decay. In particular, Thuong warned against signs of “self-development” and “self-evolution”, negative terms that refer to the shift towards liberal democratic values–values which are anathema to the ruling Communist Party.

In this vein, Thuong took to admonishing journalists who lacked “proper training” and were critical of society but not sufficiently critical of themselves. He also stressed the importance of proper training for leadership and suggested greater oversight of the Party committees and organizations involved in press organizations, particularly when it comes to adherence to Party regulations.

“In order to help press organizations develop self-awareness and a more proper nature, we should do as a number of comrades have stated: ‘Sometimes those who educate [Party members and cadres] must themselves be educated’,” Thuong stated.

Thuong reminded attendees that Vietnam’s journalists were journalists of the revolution, journalists of the Party, and journalists of the state; as such, they should work closely with the Central Propaganda Committee, the Ministry of Information and Communication, various central Party committee blocs, and the Vietnamese Journalists Association, in order to strengthen the leadership of the Party.

The plan approved April 2nd of this year also seeks to streamline Communist Vietnam’s press environment, limiting government bodies to one newspaper and one magazine, with a shift to electronic rather than print forms, and with the “Vietnamese Communist Party E-Newspaper” and the Central Propaganda Committee serving as the “core” of the country’s press structure. 

Along with head of propaganda, Thuong is also currently a member of the Politburo (short for “Political Bureau”, the leading body of the Vietnamese Communist Party), and the secretary of the Central Committee (from which members of the Politburo are chosen). In the past, Thuong was deputy secretary of the Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) Standing Committee, first secretary of the Central Committee of the HCMC Communist Youth Union, and secretary of the Quang Ngai Provincial Party Committee.

According to Reporters Without Borders, Vietnam ranks 176th out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom. Although freedom of the press is guaranteed by Article 25 of the 2013 Vietnamese Constitution, Communist Vietnam is a one-party, authoritarian state that does not tolerate challenges to its power. It controls all official media, newspapers, and publishing houses in the country and regularly censors material that does not conform to sanctioned historical or political narratives.

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