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Enhanced Restrictions In Cybersecurity Bill Shows Vietnam Is NOT Ready To Commit To EU-FTA’s Human Rights Clause

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Photo courtesy: Luật Khoa tạp chí

In recent days, the people in Vietnam, again and again, have proven that social media was the most effective platform to express their discontent with various social and political issues in the country.

Around the first week of May 2018, people’s outpoured anger over an appellate court’s decision which reduced the sentence for a convicted child molester had forced the country’s top court – the court of cassation – to swiftly responded and reaffirmed the original sentence.

And just this week, when citizens discovered that their National Assembly was going to pass a law to create three Special Economic Zones (SEZ) at Vân Đồn, Bắc Vân Phong, and Phú Quốc, they again took to Facebook to express their objection to the government’s plan. Then, they used the social media to organize the actual demonstration.

The call for a nationwide protest on one Facebook page received more than 160,000.00 shares and close to 140,000.00 reactions within days.

Social media has proven that it still is the most effective tool to disseminate information in Vietnam and to raise awareness on a variety of issues.

It was precisely seven years ago this summer that a nationwide anti-China’s aggression in the South China Sea – Vietnam’s East Sea – broke out because of a call to protest on Facebook by the page Nhật Ký Yêu Nước – Patriotic Diary.

Since 2011, social media has witnessed the emerging democracy movement in the country where it served as the birthplace of many independent civil society organizations, online newspapers, and media agencies.

With some current 30 million Facebook users in a recent statistics, neither the government or its people would underestimate the power of social media and Facebook in Vietnam.

In both of the recent incidents, the people’s power prevailed, at least for now.

By the early morning of June 9, 2018, the Vietnamese government officially announced the SEZ bill would be postponed until the fall session of the National Assembly.

However, it does not mean that the government is ready to throw in the towel.

Another bill is pending for approval by the National Assembly on June 12, 2018, and it is what would become the infamous Cybersecurity law with at least seven strikingly similar provisions when compares to China’s laws.

More concerning is the fact that these provisions are more than “copy and paste” paragraphs from China’s laws. They are in direct violation of international human rights standards.

Explicitly, in 2016, the Human Rights Council passed a resolution 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.

The goals and objectives of this Cybersecurity bill will violate Article 19 because it gives the government and the police power to demand readily accessible information to all citizens’ Internet usage data whenever they want and without any due process.

Internet service providers will act as informants for the government, voluntarily give up users’ activities to police.

Foreign corporations such as Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, and so forth, will most likely comply with Vietnam’s request to have their servers – which contain Vietnamese users’ data – to be stationed in Vietnam and must have an operating office located inside the country.

It would mean all of these companies’ stored data within Vietnam’s national territory will have to be given up to police once they demand it.

The European Union, its parliament, and its member countries should take careful notes of this Cybersecurity bill when they consider the ratification of the EU-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EU-FTA) in early 2019.

As in all EU trade agreements, the human rights clause have been maintained by EU officials and politicians as an essential condition, and that they reserve the power to suspend the agreement if there are going to be gross violations.

The Chair of the European Parliament’s Committee for International Trade, Bernd Lange, during his visit to Hanoi in September 2017, even declared that human rights and labor rights are at the center of the continued discussions about the FTA between Vietnam and EU.

If this Cybersecurity bill is passed, it will very well be in contradictions with the human rights clause of the EU-FTA. The U.S. government, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch all seem to have taken this view.

The U.S. Embassy in Hanoi urged Vietnam in their statement issued late June 8, 2018, not to pass this bill, citing concerns that such law “may not be consistent with Vietnam’s international trade commitments.”

At the same time, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both declared that if the Cybersecurity bill is passed and goes into effect, it would violate Vietnamese people’s freedom of expression and their privacy.

Some Vietnamese are worrying that they might have spent too much time and efforts on the SEZ bill and neglect the one on Cybersecurity, letting it slips through.

Undoubtedly, the main reason that many Vietnamese were willing to take their anger from Facebook to the streets regarding the SEZ bill and in a certain extent, direct such outrage at their government this past week, was the China factor.

The people believed that the law would give Chinese investors and corporations an advantage as to the future development in those three locations.

Tensions between Vietnam and China are historical facts that no regime could re-write. It does not help either that in recent years, China’s rising aggression in the East Sea would continue to remind the younger generations in Vietnam that China has been, still is, and will be a threat to their nation’s sovereignty.

“Bringing the elephants home to demolish your ancestors’ grave” – an idiom that has been recited over and over again online during the past week – is probably the image many Vietnamese have in mind when they protest the SEZ bill.

If the Cybersecurity bill passes, the government can construe this very phrase (when use to object any of its decision – such as the SEZ bill this time) as “information which propagandizes, misrepresents, and defames the People’s government” according to its Article 15, and that will be the reason for people to find themselves in trouble with the laws.

Freedom of expression

Facebook’s Community Standards Continue to Hinder Activism in Vietnam

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Photo courtesy: martechtoday.com

For almost two months, a group of drivers in Vietnam continuously protested against a BOT (Build-Operate-Transfer) toll booth near Ho Chi Minh City for collecting illegal fees after its contractual time had expired.

According to the group, BOT An Suong was collecting fees illegally when their contract with the government for the placement of the booth had ended about 32 months ago.

The owner of the BOT claimed that they had built other transport projects in the area, and hence received the right to continue to collect fees.

Regardless of who is right and who is wrong about BOT An Suong, the drivers should be allowed to protest and used social media to broadcast their campaign.

However, an unlikely aide came to the BOT’s owner’s defense: Facebook.

This is not anything new.

In Vietnam, Facebook has faced allegations coming from activists that it repeatedly upheld requests (most likely by anonymous users and suspected government’s hired trolls) to shut down or suspend Vietnamese users’ accounts at the request of the authorities to suppress free speech.

One of the latest casualties was Facebooker Huynh Long who became well known in the past year and a half as someone leading the protests against wrongful BOTs, including the latest one, BOT An Suong.

The tactics used by Long and his fellow drivers have always been peaceful.

They just refused to pay when they were driving by BOT An Suong and demanded evidence proving that it could still collect toll fees. They would often live-stream and broadcast the encounters so that others could watch and show support.

During many of these encounters, it was the community’s support that kept the drivers safe when the BOT hired towing trucks and unknown groups of masked men to intimidate Long and his companions.

But last night, Facebook informed Long that his account would be suspended for 30 days.

He joined the increasingly long list of journalists, bloggers, and activists whose accounts have been either shut down or suspended by Facebook in the last six months.

Activist Hoang Dung’s account has been suspended so regularly that it became a known fact among the activists’ community that Facebook took action against him every time his account disappeared.

Freelance journalists who published misconducts committed by government’s officials like Le Nguyen Huong Tra and Truong Chau Huu Danh were also among the victims.

Tra’s account received a blue badge for verification, but that did not help when her account was suspended twice in September 2018.

What has caused the most frustration to the Vietnamese Facebook users probably is the fact that Facebook would only give out notice of suspension for violating its community standards without any further explanation.

The users would never know which “standard” they might have violated even when they appealed their cases.

Moreover, no one knows what the standards that Facebook is using in Vietnam are, or who is the third party’s fact-checker for them inside the country.

Attempts from the activists’ community to get these answers from Facebook had gone nowhere. At most, they received some evasive responses from Facebook that did not resolve the problem.

Unlike its neighbor, the Phillippines, where an independent newspaper – Rappler – is one of Facebook’s fact-checkers, the identities of fact-checkers in Vietnam remain a secret.

In the meanwhile, living in a country like Vietnam where there are already a handful of arbitrary and vague laws that could put one in prison for exercising their freedom of expression, the secretive and non-transparent conduct of Facebook easily angered the community.

It was not a coincidence that during July 2018, over one hundred thousand Facebook users in Vietnam were signing up on Minds – another social media platform – in just one weekend to make their point to Facebook.

With the new cybersecurity law enacted and took effect already in Vietnam, Facebook does face pressure from both the government and the 60 million users’ community.

Vietnam’s Minister of Information and Communications Nguyen Manh Hung had been quite upfront about the government’s desire to build Vietnam’s own social media platform, one that could compete and win over the market from Facebook.

Part of the main reason that many Vietnamese still rely on Facebook instead of Vietnam’s own Zalo or any other platform is the fact that it is an American product.

While it may surprise some foreigners, the preference for American made products is a known fact in Vietnam – the country that ranked No. 1 in finding the United States favorable in one PEW’s research in 2017.

Facebook is also benefiting from the U.S’ rule of law and its Bill of Rights where individual rights, including their right to privacy and free speech, are protected.

Whether Facebook will uphold these values is crucial to Vietnamese users.

Failing to demonstrate that it does and will continue to adhere to these democratic values and human rights, Facebook will no longer be attractive in Vietnam.

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“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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