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MINDS’ CEO: Protect Free Speech, Will Only Respond to U.S Subpoenas

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BILL OTTMAN. Photo credits: TECHCRUNCH & MINDS.

In the past few days, thousands of social media users in Vietnam have relocated to Minds. At the same time, debates erupted where people questioned Minds’ technology, policies, and even the possibilities that Minds would cooperate with the Vietnamese authorities in the future to “sell out” its users.

Luật Khoa magazine had conducted this interview with Bill Ottman – CEO and co-founder of Minds in response to the concerns mentioned above from the Vietnamese social media community. We are providing our readers with the English version of the interview here.

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Before this “exodus” of Vietnamese Internet users to Minds, what do you know about Vietnam? (the regime, the economy, the market, human rights situations, etc.)

Vietnam is a beautiful country but unfortunately run by the Socialist Republic, a communist regime with overreaching power. I studied the Vietnam War pretty extensively and the anti-war movement in the US. I would very much like to learn more about Vietnam Pham Doan Trang, and it would be great to have a live conversation or stream together to discuss your perception of the country, both negatives and positives.

What do you think of the newly-adopted cybersecurity law in Vietnam?

I know that the law has disastrous implications for free speech and privacy. It gives the government excessive power to deem certain content ‘prohibited’, thus the ability to become a censorship machine. The law should be taken away before it goes into effect in 2019. It is destined to fail.

What is Minds’ policy toward customers’ privacy rights?

Please refer to our recent essay on how we protect user privacy. We are 100% committed to privacy. It is our core philosophy. Principles like ‘zero-knowledge’, end-to-end encryption and decentralization are all crucial for human rights. Our terms state that we comply with US law. If it is legal in the US it can be on Minds. We will not hand over user information to foreign governments or censor based on requests.

What is Minds’ policy toward the balance between privacy rights and “public security” as the police in authoritarian societies put it?

Public security is an Orwellian phrase similar to National Security. More privacy and encryption make a nation more secure, not less. More freedom of expression causes a healthy society, not less. Disinformation and propaganda are problems, but research shows that censorship makes these problems even worse. I recently wrote an article about this evidence. This has been proven by top cryptologists and cyber-security experts for a long time like Bruce Schneier and EFF.

What is your opinion regarding the need to balance the people’s human rights and the state’s efforts against terrorism (both real threats and some imaginable threats)?

Our general policy is that we require a warrant or equally compelled court order. Our general opinion is not to sacrifice freedom for safety because then we will have neither as Benjamin Franklin said.

How can we, the Vietnamese Mindsers, as a newly-formed (and maybe, quite small now) community be sure that Minds will fight for our Internet freedom rather than cooperate with the tyrannical government?

Continually ask questions, communicate with our team about concerns and hold us accountable!

Inspect our code and have your developers help us make it more secure and uncensorable.

We heard a lot about the technologies that Minds has been using. Is it true that Minds has been using decentralized, encrypted, and blockchain technologies? If yes, please describe them a little so that we the users learn more about your strength. If no, could you please tell me the difference(s) between Minds and Facebook?

Yes, we are constantly working to become more decentralized which is why we are currently leveraging technologies like Ethereum and Webtorrent. We will be focusing much more on decentralization and p2p in the future.

Facebook is plagued by surveillance, secrecy (proprietary software), manipulative algorithms, data scandals, demonetization, censorship and psychological abuse. Minds does the opposite.

Regarding blockchain, it seems like Minds is now using it only for Token-related activities. Is that right?

Yes. We use an ERC20 token on the Ethereum blockchain. Our whitepaper discusses how we publish a variety of transactions to smart contracts for our Boost and Wire products. We have an extensive reward system where top contributors earn tokens and can then use the tokens to “Boost” content for more views.

Right now 1 token gives 1,000 extra views on the content of your choice. We built this in reaction to the suppressive algorithms on facebook which diminish your organic reach and voice. It is a soft form of censorship. Minds will always have 100% organic reach and reward users with more of a voice for participation. The reward system specs can be found here.

Sorry for asking what seems like a silly question, but why did Minds create the Tokens system? What do you anticipate it to be?

We created the token in order to reward users for the contributions to the network and move the ad network (consent-based) and peer-to-peer payment and crowdfunding systems to smart contracts on the blockchain. We also created it to battle the restrictive algorithms that have caused organic reach to drop so much on facebook. 1 token currently rewards a user with 1,000 extra impressions on their content by pressing the boost button on their post. We believe people’s voices should be amplified, not silenced. Expanded, not exploited.

We saw a paragraph in Minds’ privacy policy which states that Minds “discloses potentially personally identifying and personally-identifying information only in response to a subpoena, court order or OTHER GOVERNMENTAL REQUEST [capital mine], or when Minds believes in good faith that disclosure is reasonably necessary to protect the property or rights of Minds, third parties or the public at large.” We are quite concerned about this because it implies that we the users can still have our personal information accessed by the government while the current Vietnamese government is a single-party, police-dominated one. What do you think?

This does not apply to the Vietnamese government, and we will not hand over personal information to them. We will discuss with our legal team to potentially clarify this language. Essentially, we are founded upon the idea of free expression, and as you will quickly learn, Minds is more uncensored than any other network you will find.

Is it true that Minds receives some support from the Anonymous?

Yes, because we allow anonymous accounts. Though anonymous is a decentralized, leaderless group, so it has many branches and I would not want to speak for them all. I imagine not all support us, but some definitely do.

We only endorse ethical hacking, as a side-note.

What does Minds expect from Vietnam, or the community of Vietnamese Minders to be exact?

We hope more thought leaders and netizens will continue to migrate to Minds for Internet freedom. We are dedicated to constantly evolving and improving the platform based on your feedback. This is why we are 100% open source.

The best way to build the freedom network of the future is for influencers to use our tools like blogs, videos, posting, groups, wallet, tokens and bring their audiences over.

Do you think of setting up a representative office in Vietnam and/or providing a Vietnamese version of Minds for the Vietnamese people? (English is not our second language, so most people may find it difficult to use Minds in English).

Yes, this (the Vietnamese version) will be live within a couple of weeks. 🙂 Maybe sooner.

What is Minds’ strategy regarding China and Asia, Vietnam included and also your worldwide strategy?

Our strategy is to stick to our principles, continue building better tools and hopefully continue to connect with thought leaders all throughout Asia who can help migrate their audiences off of surveillance platforms.

Can you tell us a bit more about your internet activism?

I have been involved in alternative media, freedom of information and privacy activism for about a decade. To me, extreme transparency, open source philosophy, end-to-end encryption and digital rights are crucial for a free society. I helped start organizations on Facebook with millions of followers, but after Facebook’s algorithm and policies got so invasive, it was time to #deletefacebook.

What is your opinion regarding the trend of large corporations acting in concert with the state/government to become one unified threat to the people’s rights in places like Vietnam?

This is an unacceptable trend when the line between global corporation and government merges. The people need to activate on other social networks in order to disempower the corrupt corporations and empower emerging, ethical alternatives.

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COVID-19: Why Vietnam’s Second Positive Wave Might Not Be Entirely Negative

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Vietnamese people quickly wear masks as protective gears. Photo courtesy: The Vietnamese

After nearly 100 days of zero new confirmed cases in the local community, within the last 10 days, there has been a jump in the number of patients contracting the virus in various cities in Vietnam.

According to official figures, in the six months from January 23  to July 25, there were only 140 local cases, the rest were imported patients, and zero fatalities. Since July 25, in a period of less than two weeks, more than 300 new local cases have been confirmed with 10 deaths so far.

Da Nang, the third largest city of the country, has become the new epicenter of the pandemic. 

While this new surge seems to have caught the entire nation by surprise, in reality it is a scenario that was long written on the wall, with the pandemic having never really ceased to rock countries after it first appeared on the world stage in January 2020 (the first reported case outside of China). And though it has created a new scare among citizens, it is a positive and necessary alarm.

Empty street in Hoi An city in August 2020. Photo Courtesy: The Vietnamese

To the moon and back

More than three months without domestic positive cases had put the whole nation in a complacent mode. Even the health care staff at hospitals had lowered their guard. Most of the initial cases from July 25 were linked to patients and their caretaker relatives in Da Nang hospitals.

Since then, the virus has quickly spread throughout the community and to other cities.

Fortunately, it does not take long for the whole system to restart and quickly return  to crisis mode. Da Nang was almost immediately put under partial lockdown, with thorough contact tracing being carried out for every new case. People who had been in close contact with new positive cases were put under quarantine. Medical teams and personnel from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh were sent to the epicenter to help relieve the pressure and the wearing of face masks in public in big cities became mandatory again. 

There is reason to be optimistic about the ability of the country to contain the new wave despite it having caught everyone off guard.

Local wet market in Hoi An City. Photo courtesy: The Vietnamese

Through the looking glass of Taiwan

With the initial success in containing Covid-19, there has been an ongoing debate among citizens on whether Vietnam’s authoritarian system is better equipped than other democratic societies to cope with a pandemic. However, focusing on governing systems might miss some critical points.

Comparing Vietnam with Taiwan, an exemplary success in the fight against this pandemic, may provide some useful insights.

At first glance, the two countries could not be more different. One is a communist state, the other one of the most vibrant democratic systems in the world. At closer look, Vietnam and Taiwan share some vital similarities in the fight against Covid-19. 

They both are next to China, the origin of the pandemic. Both governments, and especially their people, have the same distrust of the Chinese Communist Party, hence the high alert mode from the very beginning, long before other countries took this infectious disease seriously. They also share painful experiences from the SARS pandemic in 2003, which also originated from China. With those scars still fresh in mind, going through this crisis is like bathing in the same river twice. They knew how and where to swim.

The culture and society also played an important role here. 

Both countries are still dominated by Confucious-like ideals about the need for a harmonious society where collectivism trumps individualism. In the case of major crises like a pandemic, this kind of mindset helps glue the community together faster, quickly putting everyone into the same “for the common good” mode. 

This particular pandemic, Covid-19, in which the elderly are the most vulnerable, also highlights one important aspect: how societies treat and value their aged populations.

In Vietnam, like Taiwan, most families have at least one senior member living under the same roof. Therefore, most people, even the younger generations, despite being in low-risk groups, still voluntarily took extra precautions to protect their family members.

Opportunities lie in the midst of every crisis, as the old saying goes. And there are many opportunities for a change-demanding society like Vietnam.

While the resurgence has shattered the illusion of exceptionalism, deflating many hardcore aficionados of the authoritarian system, it has also inflated the constant alert mindset, which is a life-and-death difference in the fight against most infectious diseases.

The health crisis also puts the whole governing system in the spotlight, pushing the need for greater transparency and accountability.

With the virus always seeming to have a head start, the authorities have had no other option than to constantly play catch-up. Around-the-clock updates and publicized data and numbers are now the new normal. Government officials are forced to focus on containing the spread of the pandemic. Even when the pandemic is over, it is hard to imagine returning to “the old normal”. 

The virus has also created space for a newborn civil society. With the government’s resources stretched thin and vastly inadequate, citizens and volunteer groups have organized themselves for a wide range of mutual-support activities, from donating basic necessities to setting up coordinating teams to offer transportation for supplies and people in need. Again, when the pandemic is over, citizens who have trained themselves in this new normal will not be easily caged again. Instead, they will demand a greater place on the stage in building a common and better society for themselves.

A deadly pandemic is obviously not an ideal scenario to push for a positive change in any society. But as in any crisis, a good response brings along good reforms. 

There are reasons to be optimistic about the emergence of some form of positive change after the country has gone through this extraordinary period. 

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News

9th Annual Vietnam Advocacy Day

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Vietnam Advocacy Day is an annual event, organized by Boat People SOS, where Vietnamese Americans across the United States come to Washington, DC to meet with their representatives to voice about human rights issues in Vietnam and to connect with other Vietnamese diaspora community, human rights witnesses and advocates. Due to COVID-19, the 9th annual VNAD 2020 will take place through several webinars.

Please register for the webinars at the links below.

Webinar 1: Friday July 31st, 9AM- 11AM EDT

Topic: Freedom of Religion and the Rights of Indegenous Peoples

Register for Webinar 1: http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-FORB-1

Webinar 2: Friday July 31st, 1PM- 3PM EDT

Topic: Freedom of Religion and the Rights of Indegenous Peoples continued

Register for Webinar 2: http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-FORB-2

Webinar 3: Friday August 7th, 9AM- 11AM EDT

Topic: Freedom of Expression, the Press and Internet

Register for Webinar 3http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-EXPRESSION

Webinar 4: Friday August 7th, 1PM- 3PM EDT

Topic: Freedom of Expression, the Press and Internet
Topic: Prisoners of Conscience and Torture

Register for Webinar 4: http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-POC

Webinar 5: Friday August 14th, 9AM- 11AM EDT

Topic: UN Mechanisms and Sanctions

Register for Webinar 5: http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-UN

Webinar 6: Friday August 14th, 1PM- 3PM EDT

Topic: Freedom of Expression, the Press and Internet
Topic: UN Mechanisms and Sanctions – continued

Register for Webinar 6http://tiny.cc/VAD2020-SANCTION

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Press Release

Luat Khoa and The Vietnamese’s Press Release on the Indictment of Three Members of The Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam (IJAVN)’s

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As media organizations, Luat Khoa and The Vietnamese magazines vehemently denounce the three recent arrests of the three members of IJAVN: Le Huu Minh Tuan (detained on June 12, 2020), Nguyen Tuong Thuy (detained on May 23, 2020, and Pham Chi Dung (detained on November 21, 2019).

All of these three journalists were charged with the crime “publish, store, and disseminate or propagandize information, documentation, and products against the Social Republic of Vietnam” (Article 117 of Vietnam’s current Penal Code). This penal code has already been viewed as a blatant violation of people’s freedom of speech and free press by many human rights organizations. 

IJAVN – together with running its Vietnam Thoi Bao newspaper – is a regular civil society organization formed under the right to associate, and it sets to implement the right for a free press and promote an independent and decent media for Vietnam.

Luat Khoa and The Vietnamese magazines share and support the values in which the IJAVN pursues. 

As journalists, we ultimately care for the safety of our other colleagues. We consider the reality of a government trying to silence any journalist to be an imminent threat to us and anyone who practices free speech.

Silencing journalists is also a violation of the right to read free and independent media of the people.

We have realized that the call for the government of Vietnam to release immediately and unconditionally these three journalists of IJAVN would be unrealistic in the situation of Vietnam. However, that action is the only righteous conduct that the Vietnamese government could act right now, and therefore, we call on them to immediately do so.

We also call on all of the journalists, the activists, the public, the international organizations, and the foreign governments to jointly monitor and pressure the Vietnamese authorities to release the three journalists, Pham Chi Dung, Nguyen Tuong Thuy, and Le Huu Minh Tuan; and to call on the government to respect the Vietnamese people’s right for a free press and the freedom to form associations.

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To contact us, please email editor@luatkhoa.org

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