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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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Vietnam, A Step Closer to Democracy With The Latest Nationwide Protests?

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Protestors gathering in front of Reunification Palace aka Independence Palace in Saigon this morning. Photo Courtesy: Manh Kim.

June 10, 2018| Nationwide protests broke out in several major cities in Vietnam in the morning and lasted well into the afternoon. As of press time, the demonstrations are still ongoing with reports of several arrests and incidents of police assaulting protestors while observers mostly described the participants as peaceful.

This time, the protests seemed to have not been organized by any groups, and the more well-known dissidents and activists were not leading the crowd. However, it was the small groups of concerned citizens coming together with substantial knowledge on their right to assemble and protest that made June 10, 2018, both memorable and surprising to people.

People were gathering and rallying in several cities this morning, Hanoi, Saigon, Nha Trang, Da Nang, and even smaller areas such as My Tho – Tien Giang, Ho Nai – Dong Nai and a few Catholics parishes in Nghe An Province.

But it may very well be the turn of events in Saigon – Hochiminh City today that has shown a level of political awakening that many observers have not seen before.

People started to gather at around 8:30 a.m. local time, coming to several areas in Saigon, from the Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica in District One, walking district Nguyen Hue, in front of the U.S. Consulate, to Hoang Van Thu park near Tan Son Nhat airport. From around 500 people at one area to thousands more at another spot.

The participants have used the Livestream feature on Facebook to record the protests where they showed how knowledgeable the regular persons could be when it comes to their rights as citizens.

People at one location, while demanding that the police released those who were arrested, have questioned them:

“Have you read the Constitution. Do you know what Article 25 is? Do you know that arresting protestors is unconstitutional?”

Even when faced with assaults from police and security forces, the videos showed people were trying to tell each other to remain calm, to document the incidents with photos and videos, and do not fear because: “We did not do anything wrong!”

In Hanoi, the security forces acted swiftly in rounding up protestors and broke up the rallies. But in Saigon, thousands of people were on the streets, and by the afternoon, it seemed as if the demonstration has become unstoppable even with the police started their crackdown.

An online call to protest against the draft law creating three Special Economic Zones (SEZ) received over 160,000.00 shares on Facebook this past week. The government acted and postponed the SEZ draft law on early Saturday morning when the probability that the people will take to the streets started looming, but such efforts seemed to be futile.

The SEZ draft law was not the only bill that the citizens find problematic.

The people have a major concern regarding the SEZ draft law is because of the China factor. Anti-China rallies are nothing new in Vietnam, and for the past decades, it was the most common reason for the people to let go of their fears and gather on the streets protesting.

This time, many fear that their government has sold them short to the Chinese investors and that the SEZs will turn into mini China(s) inside Vietnam once the law goes into effect.

However, there is also the Cybersecurity draft bill pending for a vote on June 12, 2018, where Vietnam attempts to place all of its people under Big Brother’s watch, criminalizing many online activities, from misrepresenting historical facts to merely speaking unfondly of the government.

Thus, efforts were also made by several civil society groups leading by Hate Change, calling on people to also protest against the Cybersecurity draft law.


Protestors on motorbikes in Saigon, denouncing the SEZ draft law. Photo Courtesy: Nguyen Nu Phuong Dung’s Facebook.


One of the groups that showed up early at the Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica in District 1, Saigon, protesting against both draft laws, SEZ and Cybersecurity. Photo Courtesy: Nguyen Nu Phuong Dung’s Facebook.


The crowd at one spot near Hoang Van Thu park, Saigon. Photo Courtesy: Nguyen Nu Phuong Dung’s Facebook.


Crowd near Tan Son Nhat airport. Photo Courtesy: Nguyen Nu Phuong Dung’s Facebook.


People gathered in front of Reunification Palace aka Independence Palace in Saigon. Photo Courtesy: Nguyen Nu Phuong Dung’s Facebook.


Another group of protestors on motorbikes in Saigon. Photo Courtesy: Nguyen Nu Phuong Dung’s Facebook.


One protestor being assaulted by the security forces. Photo courtesy: Will Nguyen’s Twitter.


Security forces arrested people in Hanoi. Photo courtesy: Hien Trinh’s Facebook.


Security forces arrested people in Hanoi. Photo courtesy: Hien Trinh’s Facebook.


Protestors against Cybersecurity draft law in Saigon. Photo courtesy: Vi Yen Nguyen


Young people raised banner against Cybersecurity draft law in Saigon. Photo courtesy: Vi Yen Nguyen


The pictures above are from today’s protests in Hanoi and Saigon-Hochiminh City. The Vietnamese thanks the owners of these pictures for their courtesy, and please contact us for photo credits because we have received them from a few sources on Facebook and Twitter.

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People in Vietnam Openly Challenge Appellate Court’s Decision in Child Molestation Case, Demanding Tougher Sentence

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Photo courtesy: Will Crocker/Getty Images.

On May 11, 2018, an appellate court in Bà Rịa-Vũng Tàu Province reviewed the verdict of the lower court in a child molestation case and reduced the sentence for the convicted, from a three-year prison term to 18 months sentencing with no actual jail time.

People became outraged as soon as the appellate verdict came out.

Some are particularly critical over one of the mitigating factors considered by the appellate court: the convicted person is a member of the Vietnamese Communist Party whose dedications and contributions to his profession in the banking field was noted.

According to Vietnam’s 2015 Penal Code, Article 51(v), any person convicted of a crime (not necessary VCP members), who could demonstrate past dedications and contributions in their professional capacity, may receive considerations for a mitigating factor.

Thuỷ, 78-year-old, was initially been convicted of multiple charges, involving different victims. However, the appellate court dismissed all but one conviction against him, citing insufficient evidence for the rest. Couple with his past contributions, his elder age also played a role in his reduced sentence.

But the people are not convinced, and they quickly showed their disagreement on social media.

Child molestation, like child sexual abuse and even sexual harassment, has recently earned public awareness in Vietnam, where more victims are willing to speak out against it, and the public strongly demands perpetrators are appropriately prosecuted.

Thus, the recent appellate decision in Nguyễn Khắc Thuỷ’s case is seen by many as if the court has taken a step backward and against the momentum to raise awareness about sexual abuse crimes in society.

The Association for Children’s Right Protection of Hochiminh City (Hội bảo vệ quyền trẻ em TP Hochiminh) also condemned the court’s decision.

Attorney Trần Thị Ngọc Nữ – Head of the association – commented in a conversation with Kenh 14 news: “a person who was convicted of any crimes, especially crimes against children, shall not receive a sentence with no actual jail time.”

The People’s Supreme Procuracy Office of Bà Rịa-Vũng Tàu Province also confirmed with Người Lao Động newspaper on May 13, 2018, that their office had submitted an urgent report to their superiors in Hochiminh City regarding their concerns over the appellate court’s decision.

A trial of cessation would be the next step in the case, and the public’s close monitoring of this matter could mean that the judicial authorities may take it up for further review.

In the past two days, a petition was created in on Change.com where people request a higher court’s review of the case. It has managed to receive over 8,000 signatures and still being shared widely on social media in Vietnam.

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Will #MeToo finally have its break in Vietnam?

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Photo credits: Alex Ivashenko/Unplash.com

In the late evening of April 18, 2018, many journalists in Vietnam began to share on social media a story that could come with the power to shatter the nation’s culture of playing down sexual harassment in the workplace and silencing victim.

A female intern at Tuổi Trẻ newspaper was rumored to have attempted to commit suicide and was hospitalized, after alleging that she was raped by her superior. Tuổi Trẻ is considered one of the largest – if not the largest – state-owned newspaper in Vietnam, owned by the Ho Chi Minh City Chapter of the Communist Youth Union.

By the next day, information about the alleged attacker surfaced, again, via social media.

Tuổi Trẻ – while along with some 800 other state-owned media did not publish an official story – yet did announce that they have suspended journalist Đặng Anh Tuấn – whose pen name is Anh Thoa – the Head of Tuổi Trẻ television news because of the allegations.

But at the same time, the editorial board denied in the same announcement that the intern was admitted to the hospital due to an attempted suicide.

On April 20, 2018, the faculty at the university where the victim is enrolled, delivered a deadly blow to Tuổi Trẻ’s editorial board.

In possibly one of the very first moves ever done by a university in the country for cases involving sexual harassment of their students, the Head of the Department of Journalism and Communications of The Vietnam National University Ho Chi Minh City sent an official letter to the editorial board at Tuổi Trẻ, demanding them to perform a formal investigation and provide the public with an explanation.

What surprised people was the fact that the faculty of the university stood by their student’s allegations by clarifying and denouncing Tuổi Trẻ’s description of her conditions in their press announcement.

The letter read, in parts:

“We would like to bring your attention to this specific issue so that it could be dealt with directly, that Student ‘Doe’ has endured a prolonged period of psychological trauma which produced catastrophic effects on both her physical and mental health, which in turn deteriorated her health and led her to face the negative decision concerning her life.”

The current story of the female journalist intern from Vietnam resembles very closely the ordeal of Japanese journalist Shiori Ito last year, who went public with the allegation that veteran journalist, Noriyuki Yamaguchi, raped her in April 2015.

But while Ms. Ito currently has to fight not only her ongoing legal battle but also a culture that preferred silence and shaming victims in a country like Japan – where #Metoo could not quite take off – the situation may be different in Vietnam this time.

It is encouraging to see that Vietnamese men and women – especially women – from all walks of life came out in support of the victim. The hashtags #MeToo and #letherdoherjob have been surfacing on Vietnam’s social media since Wednesday’s night, and they keep spreading.

First, other female journalists shared equally horrific stories about how they and their female colleagues too, were harassed and assaulted at works.

The amount of compassion – from journalists who used to work at Tuổi Trẻ – for the victim is also comforting to know. The reactions from many of the popular and veteran journalists on social media in the country are also positive.

The message from the majority was actually quite simple and clear: speak up if you have been a victim or know a victim; and call on Tuổi Trẻ to perform a thorough investigation and be transparent and accountable to the victim and the public.

But make no mistake that the culture of victim blaming and silencing does not exist in the country.

On the contrary, as in any other patriarchal society, Vietnam carries its own baggage, full of prejudice against female victims in most of the sexual harassment and sexual violence cases.

In Vietnam, while sexual harassment in the workplace was recognized in the Labour Code for the first time almost three years ago in May 2015, many victims still do not speak up or come forward with their stories.

One reason could be that there are still no clear and well-defined legal definitions for conducts that would constitute sexual harassment.

According to CARE, an international organization working on gender-based violence in Hanoi, Vietnam, 78.2% of victims of sexual harassment in the workplace are women.

Without a clear legal framework to protect them, female workers in Vietnam dare not to speak up because they are afraid of losing their job.

In 2014, ActionAid International Vietnam reported that their survey of over 2,000 women in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City revealed, that 87% of those answered have been a victim of sexual harassment in public where 67% of the bystanders who witnessed such conducts did nothing to help the victims. 31% of female students also reported that they were sexually harassed in public.

Many of the stories published on social media in Vietnam in the past two days seem to show a pattern. The perpetrators often targetted young interns who are still in school or female employees who are freshly minted from college.

Inexperienced, young, and in need of a job, the victims – who are also facing a culture that got influenced heavily by Confucianism with very strict standards when it comes to gender roles – would incline to choose to quit their jobs and internalize their emotional wounds rather than speaking up against the perpetrator.

Yet, now, there is hope with the latest case involving the Tuổi Trẻ’s intern.

In the past two days, Facebook statuses have shown an influx of stories of similar experiences and offers of support.

People published allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct against the Director of the largest legal online research company in the country, Thư viện Pháp luật (The law library) online. This story again was a rumor among the legal professionals but never brought to broader public attention.

Female activists in the country already start calling on people to use the hashtag #MeToo. And while it is true that we still have to continue looking out for development, it is not too early to say that #MeToo has made an important breakthrough in Vietnam where many have begun to say, Vietnam needs #MeeToo now.

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