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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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Protest Against BOT: How Vietnamese Drivers Fight Back

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Traffic at BOT An Suong. Photo courtesy: 24h News.

BOT, this three-letter-word probably does not have any special meaning for anyone but the Vietnamese people. It is a daily nightmare for many commuters in the country of close to 95 million in population.

BOT stands for Build-Operate-Transfer, which is a form of contracts between a private company and the government that has become very popular in transport projects across Vietnam. By April 2018, it was estimated that 67 BOT(s) were in operation throughout the country.

To put it simply, in a typical BOT development plan, the government would contract with a private company to build a transport project – for example, a section of a highway or a new highway bridge – and later allowed the company to operate a toll booth for a number of years to collect money from commuters to recover their investment.

However, in Vietnam, once these BOT(s) began to open toll booths to collect fees, some of them faced enormous opposition from the people, namely the drivers who were subjected to paying such fees.

In August 2017, a massive protest initiated by drivers when BOT Cai Lay in Tien Giang Province began to collect fees had lasted for days, causing this toll booth to stop collecting fees indefinitely.

The drivers’ reason for protesting the fees was because the toll booth was wrongly situated, collecting money from people who did not use the road that was constructed under the BOT project.

On August 6, 2017, the drivers started to use small bills to pay for the toll fees – which range from 35.000 VND – 180.000 VND – creating long delays on the highway in many days. After about two weeks, the BOT’s owner had no choice but to close down the toll (“xả trạm” in Vietnamese) and let traffic goes through without collecting the required fees until the government could come up with a resolution.

BOT Cai Lay, however, remains completely shut down from December 2017 until today, while both the local and central governments have yet to finalize a plausible, alternative plan to resolve the problems. Their latest proposal – announced on January 15, 2019 – was to reduce the fees and extend the collecting period, but such a plan still failed to address the concern about the wrong location.

In early December 2018, allegations regarding another wrongly situated BOT stormed both social media and the news in Vietnam because this toll booth is stationed on the most important highway in the country – National Highway 1 – at the outskirt of Ho Chi Minh City in Binh Tan District.

The drivers alleged that the toll booth continued operating after its contractual time with the government had ended for more than 31 months, collecting fees that it was not entitled to. When being confronted, the owner of the BOT – IDICO company – claimed that the toll remained because it had built other transport projects nearby and could continue to collect fees.

However, the drivers did not accept this explanation, stating that if IDICO had constructed other projects, the toll should be stationed in those areas.

BOT An Suong locates at a critical junction for traffic entering and leaving Ho Chi Minh City, and the toll collects fees both ways for at least 15.000 VND each. For those who have to travel through this area daily, the amount they pay could be quite substantial in any given month.

On December 6, 2018, about one hundred drivers showed up to protest the fees collection at An Suong, and they faced hundreds of men, as well as police officers and civil security forces. A group of men wearing masks opened the door of a protesting driver’s car, dragged out Le Thai Hung who was sitting on the passenger’s seat and physically assaulted him.

Hung was then taken to the nearby police station by the same group where he alleged that he got beaten up during his 12-hour detention. The police did not charge him; they later released him and said he fell and suffered injuries.

On January 14, 2019, the story of BOT An Suong got heated again on social media where four drivers (one of them is journalist Truong Chau Huu Danh) who protested the fees collection at this toll booth were detained illegally in an alley nearby for over 30 hours.

The victims live-streamed their plight where they were confined in a car, surrounded by hundreds of masked men and police throughout the night.

Their three cars were picked up by a towing truck which they claimed was acting under the order of the owner of the BOT. They were towed from the BOT to an alley about 50 meters nearby where the four persons were held against their will. Barricades were put up at the only entrance/exit of a dead-end alley, effectively stopped them from leaving. They also claimed that their cars were damaged due to the removal. A fifth person was attacked and taken away earlier in the evening of January 14, and his car later was towed to an unknown place.

In the live-stream clips, viewers could see police officers were present at the scene but failed to act and protect the victims from both the removal and the false imprisonment. Also present at the scene was a large group of men in “blue masks” who acted most aggressive, yet it was impossible to know their true identity.

The four continued staying together in one car, a Ford Ranger, where no one was allowed to get close to them. Food delivery, their lawyer (who came by the next morning), and even an ambulance, all were denied entry.

Around 9:00 P.M., one of the drivers, Huynh Long, stepped off the car to find a restroom and disappeared. He later was found unharmed, but his wallet and cellphones were taken.

Long said he was held against his will by a group of men on motorbikes, who then rode around town with him and threatened him to stop his protest against BOT An Suong. They later left him stranded on the streets after taking his belongings, but Long got help and was able to come back to the alley the following morning to be with his friends.

By January 15, 2019, the police attempted a few times to write up their investigative report about the incident, and the four victims finally were allowed to leave the scene in the late evening. They stated that they would initiate legal action against those who were involved in the false imprisonment.

On January 16, 2019, the protest by the drivers and others continued at An Suong, asking the BOT to stop collect fees. One driver said in a live-stream on Facebook that he has prepared for the worst, and that if the BOT’s owner would again try to detain drivers, he could last up to ten days.

At about 2:00 P.M. local time, according to the same protesting driver, the toll booth gave up and let cars pass through without having to pay.

There is a Facebook group of drivers who participated in these BOT protests in recent years calls Friends on the Long Road (Bạn Hữu Đường Xa).

One of the reasons these protests were successful and received public support was the fact that a lot of Vietnamese people got frustrated when they have paid a lot of taxes for improving and maintaining road conditions, and yet the country’s infrastructure and transportation remained the worst in the world.

Further, whether it was the Formosa environmental disaster, the land eviction in Loc Hung garden, or these BOT projects, the people did not get to participate in the decision-making process nor were they even consulted. Often, the public never knew about these projects until they became disastrous for the people’s daily life.

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Loc Hung Garden Incident: Government’s Forced Eviction Is Without Legal Merits

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Photo Courtesy: Facebook Uyen Vu.

January 8, 2019| The forced eviction in the area known as Loc Hung vegetable garden in Ho Chi Minh City continued at daybreak today.

At about 5:50 A.M., Facebookers in Vietnam reported that hundreds of police and plainclothes security police had resumed their demolishment at Loc Hung. By 6:00 A.M., the authorities have arrested Cao Ha Truc, one of the leaders representing the Loc Hung residents in their land dispute with the government during the last 20 years, along with his wife.

Truc is among the group of people that have lived at Loc Hung all their life, beginning with his grandparents and parents who were migrating from the North of Vietnam after the Geneva Accord took effect and divided the country in half. The Catholics Church had given his family the land they lived on since 1954, and according to him, they have used it to farm vegetables all these years.

In an interview conducted by an independent news media, Tin Mung Cho Ngươi Ngheo, on January 4, 2019, Truc openly challenged the government on their legal grounds to enforce the eviction of the Loc Hung residents’ homes, asserting that there was no land recovery decision from the authorities.

A land recovery decision (quyết định thu hồi đất) is the first legal requirement to start the process of enforced eviction under Vietnam’s laws. (Article 71, Law on Land 2013).

Attorney Trinh Vinh Phuc (who was one of the defense lawyers for Will Nguyen – a Vietnamese American convicted for inciting public disorder when joining the June 2018 protest), was among a few lawyers who openly supported the residents of Loc Hung.

On his Facebook page, attorney Phuc agreed with Truc and the other residents that the enforcing authorities have yet to produce a land recovery decision to start the eviction process.

Moreover, the law further requires that fair compensation must be provided for the affected residents and that the government must assist with relocation.

Loc Hung residents repeatedly claim that the government did not comply with any of those requirements under the law.

While the image of bulldozers tearing down homes in forced eviction has become a familiar scene in Vietnam’s land dispute cases, the legality of such conduct by the enforcing authorities is questioned. The Law on Land 2013 required that the enforcement team must move both the people and their property outside the enforced area, perform proper inventory, and notify the owners with information on how to reclaim them. The enforcement should also be carried out during regular business hours.

However, according to human rights activist, Nguyen Ho Nhat Thanh, close to one thousand police officers have been mobilized throughout today to demolish Loc Hung garden. More news on social media indicated that the police were preparing for the demolishment throughout the night, turning on public speakers at maximum volume and asking the residents to leave the area.

Other bloggers reported that there were at least five bulldozers at the scene, tearing down people’s houses. Cao Ha Truc and his wife were both arrested today because they have been recognized as the residents’ leaders.

Like the days before, the local authorities also blocked off streets leading to Loc Hung and stopped people from entering the area. The security police of Ho Chi Minh City even surveilled the Church of Redemptorists and prevented the priests from leaving so that they could not go to Loc Hung to show support for the Catholic community there.

Starting from last night, witnesses described Loc Hung’s residents were living in a war-like zone. People were panicking and beginning to move out their property throughout the night in fear that the forced eviction would soon resume.

In the middle of the chaos, yet many residents still managed to gather for a candlelight vigil in front of Lady Mary statute and sang their prayers.

The estimated value of the lost property which the residents will incur is going to be in the billions of VND.

One of the most vulnerable groups living in Loc Hung is the community of some elderly veterans from the South of Vietnam’s army who do not have an immediate family. Most of these men received injuries during the war and because they were soldiers of the “old regime,” they were not given any opportunities or even proper healthcare under the current regime. Now facing homelessness, their already uncertain future appears to be even bleaker.

The house of former political prisoners couple, Pham Thanh Nghien and Huynh Anh Tu, is also among those going to be soon torn down at Loc Hung garden. Both of them are well-known dissidents who remain critical of the government after their releases from prison. The couple has a one-year-old daughter with asthma conditions living with them.

Southeast Asia and the Pacific office of Amnesty International has issued a call for action today, asking the public to contact the local enforcement authorities in Vietnam to demand them to cease their eviction activities in Loc Hung immediately.

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Land-Grabbing In Vietnam Gets Serious In Urban Areas

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January 4, 2018| In the early hours of the day, various police forces and their accompanying civil security (dân phòng) surrounded an area in Ward 6, District Tan Binh, Ho Chi Minh City known as Loc Hung vegetable garden with bulldozers, firetrucks, and paramedics to forcefully evicted about one hundred households from the land that they have been disputing with the local government for close to two decades.

The residents have spent years on negotiations with the local government, starting from the time the price for their land skyrocketed and the area became desired for development in the early 2000s.

The two sides could not agree on the price. It is estimated that with such a prime location, the value should be more than 100M VND per meter square, but the government rezoned the area and only offered the people around the range of a few hundreds of thousands VND per meter square. The millions of VND in the difference between the two prices eventually killed the talks, and the authorities declared they would use forced eviction in the last few days of 2018.

Now, only less than a week into the new year, the police and security forces were barricading and blocking traffic and people from coming into the area so that they could begin demolishing the residents’ homes starting from around 9:00 A.M.

Throughout the day, our editor, Pham Doan Trang, reported from the scene and stated on her Facebook page that the security police also stationed in front of many dissidents’ homes in Saigon and even arrested Nguyen Tri Dung, the son of blogger Dieu Cay (Nguyen Van Hai) at his home in District 3. Nguyen Tri Dung was later released in the evening of January 4, 2019.

By 9:20 A.M. the authorities cut off electricity, 3G, and Wifi at Loc Hung. The police began to tear down people’s houses in the area with all means available, from shovel and hammer to bulldozer, while calling on the people to voluntary leave the area.

88 households would become homeless without compensation for their land once the demolishment is finished.

By 11:00 A.M., a large area surrounding the garden was completely sealed off by the police. Witnesses described on Facebook that they were asked to provide identification and not allowed to enter.

Face-bookers continued to report the demolishment and the dispute between the local police and the residents with updates and even live-stream videos.

Aerial view of Loc Hung. Sources: Facebook Nguyen Dat An.

According to the residents, Loc Hung is a piece of land estimated to be in between four and six hectares, belongs to the Catholics Church of Vietnam since 1954 with proper documentation, including deeds and other recordings from the former South of Vietnam’s regime. Also, starting from 1954, there were Catholics who migrated from the North of Vietnam to the South after the Geneva Accord took effect that settled in the area. This community has been living in Loc Hung continuously for generations.

In 1993, the residents were trying to register for their right to possess and use the land with the local government (in Vietnam, individual citizens do not own their land as all lands belong to “the people” and under the state’s management, but they can register for the right to possess and usage). The residents alleged that the government intentionally ignored their petitions to record land right’s usage.

Unable to register their land, the people could not construct and develop the area, and instead, relied on vegetable farming to make a living. Their peaceful existence became the thorn in the eyes of the local authorities as the price for the land continued to increase.

Nevertheless, to this day, Loc Hung garden has never been part of any development project, and it is also the most cogent argument the residents and their supporters have against the local government, that there is no imminent reason for the forced eviction and the destruction of hundreds of houses.

By 6:00 P.M. it was reported that at least four people were arrested and some houses have been torn down. The residents strongly opposed the eviction and protested. One person even lay down in front of a bulldozer to protest.

A man lay down in protest. Source: Amen TV

As of press time, there were a total of at least ten people arrested and ten houses destroyed.

The forced eviction came during the time Vietnamese people starting to get ready for the Lunar New Year which will be on February 5, 2019. Seeing hundreds of people become homeless from a land dispute in the middle of the largest urban city in the country has angered many users on Facebook. Information continued to be shared throughout the day, despite the new cybersecurity law went into effect on January 1.

Land disputes and land-grabbing have always been among the most severe issues which test the government’s ability to govern since Vietnam embarked on the economic reform in the late 1980s.

The government of Ho Chi Minh City is already in the middle of a heated controversy regarding land-grabbing and development started from the 1990s in the Thu Thiem peninsula. Forced eviction and ill-planning relocation plans of people living in the development area have dragged the government’s ambitious dream for Thu Thiem through the mud for over 20 years.

Adding Loc Hung – and close to one hundred people living there – to the mix, raises even more concerns about Vietnam’s failure to handle development projects according to the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The Vietnamese communist government has been trying to demonstrate their ability to promote the 16 SDG’s goals with their development projects, especially during their negotiation with the EU for the EU-VN Free Trade Agreement. However, the reality of land-grabbing and forced eviction happening in the country throughout the past few decades cast severe doubts on the government’s claim.

As of tonight, at least ten households in Loc Hung are homeless and without any compensation from the government.

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