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Human Rights

Vietnam: Increasing Cyber Attacks on Activists Portray A Shrinking Internet Freedom

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A policeman blocks photographers from taking pictures during an anti-China protest in front of the Opera House in Hanoi. Photo: Reuters/Nguyen Lan Thang

During the last week of November and in early December 2017, many of the independent media websites in Vietnam reported that access to their sites had been blocked. This includes The Vietnamese. Readers confirmed they could not access the attacked sites unless they installed VPN to get over the firewalls

Another independent news project also runs by The Vietnamese’s editorial board, Luat Khoa online legal magazine, was also blocked in Vietnam starting around December 4, 2017. Luat Khoa has been in operation for the past three years with over 90k likes on Facebook and an average of 500,000 pageviews per month. This is the first time Luat Khoa gets blocked in the country.

In a more severe case, on December 5, 2017, Dan Luan – another well-known independent site – shared on Facebook that their website was under DDoS attack for about a week in late November. A DDos attack is defined as “an attempt to make an online service unavailable by overwhelming it with traffic from multiple sources”.

Earlier last month, there were also failed attempts trying to inject Dan Luan’s website with malicious scripts via Cross-Site Scripting (XSS). Dan Luan frequently suffered cyber attacks, which they believed were the works of government-controlled hackers.

Also in November 2017, a handful of popular Facebookers lost access to their accounts because they were reported by anonymous users to Facebook for violations of community standards. Among them was blogger Nguoi Buon Gio, who now lives in exile in Germany.

It seems quite likely that the Vietnamese government would rely on cyber attacks as an important tactic for oppression in recent years when the numbers of Internet and social media users increased dramatically in the country.

In July 2017, We Are Social, a social media marketing and advertising reported Vietnam had surpassed Thailand to become the 7th country with the most Facebook users worldwide.

The government has not exactly been shy in expressing the desire to tighten their grip on controlling the virtual world. As previously reported, Vietnam claimed to have worked with Facebook and Google to remove thousands of videos and accounts that allegedly contained anti-state materials.

Earlier this year, in May 2017, Gen. Nguyen Danh Cong of the Ministry of Public Security stated during an intra-departmental meeting, that the MPS had successfully blocked thousands of websites which they deemed to be anti-state and reactionary contents.

Four years before that, on May 5, 2010, Gen. Vu Hai Trieu, the then Deputy Director of the MPS, announced: “Our technical departments have destroyed 300 Internet web pages and blogs posting unsuitable contents.”

Coincidentally, it was in early November 2017 that the Washington D.C.-based cybersecurity firm, Volexity, issued a report, confirming it has been – since May 2017 – monitoring an active operation of mass surveillance and cyber attacks operating out of Vietnam.

This operation includes the maintenance of an active group of hackers whose mission is to target Vietnamese activists and dissidents, as well as foreign citizens, corporations, and governments with interests in Vietnam.

It was not the first time that the international cybersecurity community had warned about hackers who seemed to have had a close tie with the Vietnamese government. In the past three years, besides Volexity, at least two other organizations, Electronic Frontier Foundation and FireEye, had issued similar reports.

Vietnam’s government is believed to have been maintaining a cyber espionage group calls OceanLotus since at least 2014. OceanLotus (or SeaLotus) is also known as APT-C-00 or APT32 according to these organizations.

There was also other information leading people to believe that OceanLotus was related to the hacker group Sinh Tu Lenh.

Sinh Tu Lenh became famous among Vietnamese cyber community about a decade ago when it was named as the party responsible for the numerous cyber attacks, aiming at dissidents, activists, and independent news sites, including Dan Luan, Talawas, Xcafevn, Anh Ba Sam, and Mother Mushroom.

Also recently, on November 14, 2017, Freedom House issued its Freedom on the Net report and named 30 countries where the government paid commentators and political bots to spread government propaganda. Vietnam was one of them.

According to Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House: “The effects of these rapidly spreading techniques on democracy and civic activism are potentially devastating.”

The report also quoted Sanjia Kelly, director of the Freedom on the Net project: “Governments are now using social media to suppress dissent and advance an anti-democratic agenda.”

“Not only is this manipulation difficult to detect, it is more difficult to combat than other types of censorship, such as website blocking because it’s dispersed and because of the sheer number of people and bots deployed to do it.”

But activists in Vietnam are not new to this form of government’s suppression. Back in 2014, our editorial board’s member, Pham Doan Trang, had met with Google and Facebook representatives in the U.S. where she forwarned them about the daily attacks these “paid opinion shapers” had fired at activists and bloggers in Vietnam and how such conducts affected democracy movement.

During the summer of 2014 alone, over 40 accounts of activists were reported, and in turn, got shut down by Facebook.

Calling themselves the government’s “cyber army forces”, these online bots repeatedly reported activists and bloggers’ Facebook accounts, effectively causing their shut-downs.

Taking advantages of Facebook’s loosely defined rules and standards of conducts for the users’ community, the troop of “opinion shapers” would abuse the Facebook’s “Report Abuse Button” with thousands of reports a day on a specifically targeted activist’s account.

Yet, to date, it seems that the activists and the democracy movement have proven their potential sustainability in Vietnam, because people are still actively promoting their causes and Facebook continues to be the main platform for advancing social changes, despite all odds.

Back in March 2015, facing the city government’s immediate decision to cut down some 6,700 trees in Hanoi, activists created a Facebook group and organized people for peaceful protests. They were able to mobilize residents of Hanoi and successfully stopped the city government from going forward with the plan.

In 2016, Facebook again proved its effectiveness, as it was one of the best platforms for informing the public about the Formosa environmental disaster in Central Vietnam. During the height of the weeks-long protests against Formosa Ha Tinh Steel Plant – the company responsible for causing the pollution – access to Facebook was blocked on a few weekends. But its popularity among the general public had caused the government to undo such decision almost immediately.

This year, in the recent months, drivers who were passing through a BOT toll in Cai Lay Ward, Tien Giang Province have been protesting the improper location of said toll. Their acts of civil disobedience – through various forms of slowing down the process of paying toll fees and causing the toll to close down – were followed closely by the public on Facebook and other social media platforms.

To protect themselves and fight back, Vietnamese activists have received technical assistance from organizations, such as Access Now, when they got reported by the government’s bots on Facebook or got struck by some other forms of cyber attacks.

In the meanwhile, the Draft Law on Cybersecurity – which mirrored that of China – is now waiting for the National Assembly’s approval.

And as such, the battle in the cyber world continues.

Fair Trials

Self Immolation in Vietnam: A Victim of Injustice’s Agonizing Act In Defiance

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Mr. Bùi Hữu Tuân at the scene. Photo credits: Facebook Trịnh Bá Phương

In the afternoon of July 2, 2018, a man committed self-immolation in the center of Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city, a few steps away from the Central Citizen Reception Committee’s office on Ngô Thì Nhậm Street.

He was later identified as 58-year-old Bùi Hữu Tuân, former village chief of Đạo Ngạn Village, Hợp Đồng Ward, Chương Mỹ District, Hanoi.

The victim is now in critical conditions with severe burns to the whole body.

Mr. Tuân was charged with Article 356 of Vietnam’s Penal Code for “abusing official position, power in the performance of official duties.”

He was supposed to begin his sentence of 3-year-imprisonment today, July 3, 2018. In the last act of defiance, one day before its commencement, he desperately protested the injustice of the trial and his conviction.

He was charged, tried, and convicted with not only insufficient evidence, but the evidence at trial showed that the prosecution did not even have any evidence for one element of the crime they had charged him with.

His son told VOA Vietnamese in an interview on July 2, 2018, that after Tuân failed to get the Central Citizen Reception Committee’s office agreed to halt his sentencing while reviewing his complaint to the Government Inspectorate, he went outside and committed the self-immolation.

Article 356 prescribes: “Any person who, for personal gain or other self-seeking purposes, abuses his/her power or position in performance of official duties to act against his/her official duties and as a result causes property damage of from VND 10,000,000 to under VND 200,000,000 or infringes upon state interests, lawful rights and interests of another organization or individual shall face a penalty of up to 03 years’ community sentence or 01 – 05 years’ imprisonment.”

From Pháp luật Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh (The Law – Hochiminh City) newspaper, the most damning evidence against Tuân was that he – as the village chief – allegedly accepted money, along with the requests of some 23 families in the village, to ask the local government to give them lands to build their ancestors’ shrines and worship places. Yet, none of this money went to Tuân or any of his two co-defendants, as it was donated to the village.

The local procuracy’s office (the prosecution in Vietnam) and the court further alleged that he had overstepped his authorities in giving out land slots to the villagers, and thus had committed a crime under the above penal code.

According to them, he had abused his “official duties” even though some people questioned whether the village chief position could be considered an “office”.

At the trial court level, Tuân was convicted and sentenced to the maximum term prescribed by law: 5-year-imprisonment. The appeal trial upheld his conviction but reduced the sentence to 3 years.

The appellate court’s decision in upholding his conviction with actual imprisonment was the last straw for Bùi Hữu Tuân, and he committed the unimaginable act of setting himself on fire.

From a legal standpoint, Tuân was correct in protesting his conviction and his sentence because the first element of the crime “abusing official position, power in the performance of official duties” seemed to have been conveniently ignored throughout his criminal proceedings.

In the same article published back in November 2017, Pháp Luật newspaper reported that it was established at trial that all of the money which Tuân and his co-defendants received from the villagers, was donated to various community services projects in the village.

Neither Tuân or any of his co-defendants had used any portion of the money for personal gains.

In other words, it is almost certain that the prosecution would not be able to prove the first element of the crime alleged against him, that he did commit an act for personal gain or other self-seeking purposes.

Worse, the evidence further showed that Tuân did submit the villagers’ requests to the ward’s officials, asking them to give out the land to people for burial and worship purposes. Pháp Luật newspaper also wrote, back in November 2017, that they had interviewed the villagers independently and were told that the local officials were present, at all times, to survey the land with the defendants.

And while Tuân and two of his deputy chiefs were tried and convicted, none of the ward’s officials had to face criminal charges even though the same evidence could be used against them.

By the same token, it could be argued that if the evidence were not enough to file charges against the local officials, then it certainly would not be enough to convict Tuân and the co-defendants.

Undeniably, Tuân’s trial and conviction again delineate the inefficient and broken legal system in Vietnam where people can be charged, tried, and convicted with no evidence to prove the required elements of the crime.

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Freedom of expression

“Minds” over Facebook: Vietnamese Netizens’ Great Cyber Exodus?

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Photo Credit: Adorkableaznbunny

In the past two days, the “F-Generation” of Vietnam started what seems to be an online exodus when many well-known Facebookers announced that they are moving on to Minds.com – an alternate platform for social media.

The “F” in F-Generation stands for “Facebook” as the online social media giant has a dominant presence in the country where some statistics raised the number of users to be between 50 to 60 million.

For about two months, people had been protesting both online and offline against the latest Cybersecurity law which was passed by an overwhelming 86.86% of the National Assembly.

The law raised concerns over Internet users’ privacy, people’s freedom of expression, and their right to access the Internet.

Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, declared: “This bill, which squarely targets free expression and access to information, will provide yet one more weapon for the government against dissenting voices. It is no coincidence that it was drafted by the country’s Ministry of Public Security, notorious for human rights violations.”

In less than two days, some of the prominent Facebookers have received thousands of subscribers over at their freshly minted Minds accounts.

In the same time, reports of pages and personal accounts have been taken down by Facebook also surfaced.

Trương Thị Hà, a victim of police brutality during the last “Black Sundays” protest, announced on Minds this morning that her account has been deactivated by Facebook.

After she posted a letter to her university professor, asking him to explain why he stood there while the police brutalized her during her detention after the protest, that very post was deleted for “violating Facebook community standards” at about 8:30 a.m. Then, her entire account seemed to have disappeared by 10:40 a.m.

According to author Claire Bernish who wrote about Minds back in June 2015, Facebook could finally meet its match. Minds gives users the familiarity with many features they have already accustomed to on Facebook while commits to protecting their privacy.

“Minds takes the government’s eyes out of the equation by encrypting private messages and using open-source code that any programmer can check,” Bernish explained.

“We are a free and open-source platform to launch your digital brand, social network, and mobile app. We are also a social network ourselves. It is a global social network of social networks,” the Minds team declared.

The hacker collective Anonymous also backed Minds, citing the fact that the founders of the new online social media shared the same vision of those who use the Internet for activism.

According to the Wired UK: “Two of those on the Minds team – Bill Ottman and Lori Fena – have strong backgrounds dealing with privacy and freedom of expression issues and are both known for their internet-related activism. It is likely these are the type of people that the company is hoping to attract – those with a cause, who want to build something and share it openly with others who may also have a cause.”

President Trần Đại Quang signed the Cybersecurity bill into law on June 25, 2018, although some 27,000.00 signatures of citizens who had expressed their objection to the proposal of the law, were delivered to his office during the prior weekend.

It seems as if the activists and human rights defenders from Vietnam might have found a friend in Minds because the reason they chose Facebook in the first place, was to use the platform as a tool to advance a cause: promoting human rights and democracy in the country.

While not all of them agreed to the solution of leaving Facebook and saw that as a sign of defeat, the silence from Facebook during the last two months as the Cybersecurity law stormed the nation could force many activists to reconsider whether to continue to use it as their primary platform. Most are still using both platforms, but all seemed to agree that if Facebook agreed to comply with the new Cybersecurity, then it could mean they will have to leave for good.

Vietnamese netizens are no strangers to such online “resettlement.” Back in 2009, when Yahoo 360 blog closed down its operation, Facebook quickly became the next best choice in the country.

Almost ten years later, while Facebook could still enjoy its reign in the country as the most used online social media platform, the power of Vietnamese users should not be underestimated by anyone.

Afterall, Vietnamese are a group of people whose contemporary history entwined with mass migration and exodus. They have a lot of experience with starting over, yet again, and they will not be afraid to do so.

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Human Rights

Black Sundays Report: Vietnamese People’s Response To Police Brutality During June 2018 Protests

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Photo Credit: Nhật Ký Biểu Tình/Protestors' Diary Facebook Page

Civilians, victims of police brutality and arbitrary detention, academics, activists, researchers, and a lot more people from all walks of life inside and outside of Vietnam got together and produced a report on the two “Black Sundays” of June 10 and June 17, 2018.

It is the Vietnamese people’s unified and firm response to the vicious repression by the government during the latest rounds of protest in the country.

According to the Facebook page of Nhật Ký Biểu Tình (Protestors’ Diary), copies of the report have been delivered to the UN OHCHR, other international NGOs working on human rights as well as various foreign embassies.

The full report can be downloaded here.

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