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Vietnamese Activists React to Facebook Taking Down “Anti-state” Posts

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Photo Credits: asiasentinel.com

In mid-April, Reuters broke the news that Facebook agreed to censor so-called “anti-state” posts after the Vietnamese government put pressure on the social networking site and took local servers offline, slowing down traffic. Since the news broke, the activist and politically-engaged community in Vietnam has been determined to jump over another hurdle in its struggle for freedom of expression. 

Thao Dinh, an activist in Hanoi who formerly worked as director of communications for VOICE, a Vietnamese human rights NGO, said she has used Facebook much less since learning about the content restrictions and has switched to other platforms. 

“Diversity is important,” Dinh said. “The worst scenario is one platform becoming a monopoly. So I would recommend people use as many services as they want depending on their needs, such as Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Blogs, LinkedIn, Reddit, Quora, Telegram, except the platforms spying on us for the government.”

Additionally, Vietnamese activists are urging their fellow countrymen, if they choose to use Facebook, to be wary about sharing sensitive and personal information on the platform. Hoang Dung advised his network on Facebook to adjust their settings and clear their  “Off-Facebook Activity” which is a summary of activity that businesses and organizations share about your interactions, such as visiting their apps or websites. 

Vi Yen Nguyen, the training manager at VOICE, shared on her profile three other alternatives to Facebook: Signal, Telegram, and Wire. 

Vi Yen wrote, “Facebook was faced with pressure by the Vietnamese government and gave up. It is no longer a reliable platform. Although admittedly, in this censorship case, Facebook is only a victim.” 

(Vi Yen Nguyen’s quote was in Vietnamese: “Facebook đã chào thua trước áp lực của chính quyền Việt Nam. Nó không còn là một nơi đáng tin cậy. Dù phải thừa nhận rằng, trong vụ kiểm duyệt này, Facebook cũng chỉ là một nạn nhân.”)

Human Rights Watch said that Facebook should have resisted. 

“Facebook has set a terrible precedent by caving to the government of Vietnam’s extortion,” said John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Now other countries know how to get what they want from the company, to make them complicit in violating the right to free speech. The government of Vietnam shouldn’t have throttled the platform’s traffic in the first place, but Facebook shouldn’t have agreed to its demands.”

In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson said that the Vietnamese government “has instructed us to restrict access to content which it has deemed to be illegal in Vietnam. We believe freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, and work hard to protect and defend this important civil liberty around the world. However, we have taken this action to ensure our services remain available and usable for millions of people in Vietnam, who rely on them every day.”

The UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights require businesses such as Facebook to “respect human rights,” including avoiding infringements and addressing adverse impacts in which they are involved. As a member of the Global Network Initiative, Facebook has pledged that it will protect the human rights of users when they are confronted with government demands inconsistent with international human rights standards.

“It’s hard to see how Facebook can live up to its human rights obligations when it’s helping Vietnam censor free speech,” Sifton said.

The pressure on Facebook coincides with a new decree by the Vietnamese government implementing monetary fines for people and internet companies for posting or publishing a sweeping range of items with “forbidden contents”, materials that promote “reactionary ideas”, “have not been allowed for circulation, have been prohibited for circulation or have been confiscated.” 

The United States and other countries should have better utilized their diplomatic leverage to support Facebook in their stance against pressure from the government of Vietnam, Human Rights Watch said. Other businesses and business groups should have stood more publicly with the company to prevent the government’s strong-arm tactics.

The reluctance of Vietnamese activists to continue using Facebook has created new market opportunities for other social networks. Dinh recently got her Twitter profile officially verified.

“Since #Facebook is lowering its standards to protect human rights in #Vietnam, Twitter and other platforms are having a great opportunity for growing in [the] Vietnam market,” she tweeted

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Internet Freedom

9 Takeaways From Vietnam’s Draft Decree On Personal Data Protection

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Photo courtesy: Emotiv.com.

This article was written in Vietnamese by Trinh Huu Long and previously published in Luat Khoa Magazine on February 18, 2021. The translation was done by the author.


It’s been almost three years since Vietnam’s National Assembly passed the highly controversial Cybersecurity Law. No guidance on the law’s implementation has been given as the central government usually does in the case of decrees, circulars, and decisions.

A draft decree was made available to the public for comments back at the end of 2018, but it quickly disappeared after receiving huge backlash from domestic and international actors.

Earlier this month, the Ministry of Public Security’s website announced another draft decree which was to address personal data protection.

You can find the full text of this document in Vietnamese here (Google Drive link). The draft decree is available for public consultation from February 9 to April 9.

We have taken a look at the text and below are nine takeaways.

1. Two types of personal data

The draft decree categorizes personal data as two types: basic and sensitive.

Basic personal data includes information about personal identification, such as name, date of birth, place of birth, address, nationality, ethnicity, marital status, and ID number. One thing, however, is unclear: “data containing online activities and history.”

Sensitive personal data includes political and religious opinions; health, genes, sex, biometrics; finances; sexual life; residence; social networking; and others.

2. Individual right to personal data

Individuals have a wide range of rights regarding their personal data as follows:

  • To consent or refuse data processing by others of one’s own personal data;
  • To be informed of personal data being processed by others;
  • To demand an end of data processing; to file complaints about violations;
  • To demand compensation in cases of data abuse;
  • Sensitive personal data should not be released. Plus, no release of basic personal data is allowed should it negatively affect its owner. The draft decree doesn’t specify the term “to release personal data” and whom the data is released to besides the public, but based on the wording of Article 6, the draft seems to be only addressing releases to the public.

3. Circumstances in which personal data is being processed without consent

According to Article 10, all personal data, regardless of being basic or sensitive, is subject to being processed (collection, storing, and use) without consent in the following circumstances:

  • Matters relating to national security, public security, and public order;
  • Emergencies where the freedoms, or the health and life of the owner’s personal data or of the community’s are being involved;
  • Investigations and convictions of legal violations;
  • Conducting research and gathering statistics (after de-identifying the data);
  • Other circumstances according to the law and international treaties.

The last circumstance, “other circumstances according to the law,” is a loophole that is widely used in the legal system of Vietnam to give the government’s executive branch, especially ministries, an almost unlimited ability to interpret laws and regulations using circulars and executive decisions.

4. Personal data being processed without informing its owner

According to the draft decree, the owners of personal data are normally informed should their data be processed by government agencies or other legal actors.

However, there are three exceptions to the rule, and the most concerning is the second one (Item b, Section 3, Article 11): “In case the processing of personal data is constituted by the law, international agreements, and international treaties.”

This is another loophole in an important matter relating to the transparency of personal data processing.

5. The establishment of the Committee on Personal Data Protection

A new government agency called the Committee on Personal Data Protection is going to be established. It will be set up under the central administration.

The Ministry of Public Security (MPS) can appoint no more than six members to the Committee upon the cabinet’s approval.

The Committee is closely tied to the MPS Department of Cybersecurity and Hi-Tech Crimes Prevention as it is headquartered at the department and chaired by the department’s head officer.

6. Permit required for processing sensitive personal data

Article 20 requires that parties who want to process sensitive personal data must register with the Committee on Personal Data Protection. 

However, the Article excludes activities by government agencies relating to law enforcement, judicial procedures, heath, social security, and scientific research. That means these agencies don’t need to register. Also, the Article leaves another loophole for other authorities to exploit by attaching a clause saying “other activities according to the law.”

What remains after excluding the above-mentioned government agencies? Enterprises and non-governmental organizations, both domestic and international ones. Services such as social media, banking, and healthcare must register with the Committee.

7. Permit required for conducting cross-border transfer of personal data 

This is directly related to foreign services operating in Vietnam or domestic services operating in other countries, especially technology companies.

Article 21 states that four conditions must be met before a party can make a cross-border transfer of personal data:

  • Data owner’s consent;
  • Storing the original copy of the data in Vietnam;
  • Providing documents that prove the data receiving countries have personal data protection regulations at the same or higher level than that of this decree;
  • Obtaining a written approval from the Committee.

The second and third conditions can be waived should the data processing party provide statements regarding their commitment on protecting the data.

The data processing party must archive records of data transferring within three years, and stop transmitting data should data leaks or abuses occur, or should they no longer have sufficient capacity to protect the data, or the data owner is incapable/ having difficulties  protecting his/her rights and interests.

The Committee on Personal Data Protection will routinely inspect data transmitting parties once a year.

The requirement of storing data’s original copy in Vietnam will likely make it a bit more difficult for foreign social networks, email services, and e-commerce activities to operate in Vietnam. According to Google expert Duong Ngoc Thai, Facebook is unlikely to store users’ personal data in Vietnam but rather just cache data to make access to its services faster.

8. Administrative fines can be up to 5 percent of the total revenue of a company in the Vietnam market

Those who violate the regulations on personal data protection are subject to fines of 50 million dong or 5 percent of their total revenue in  the Vietnam market.

Simultaneously, violators can also be banned from processing personal data for 1 to 3 months and may have their data processing licenses revoked.

If not allowed to collect, store and use users’ personal data, online services will probably not be able to function the way they do currently.

The decree doesn’t specify how the government can prohibit online services from processing personal data, but the Cybersecurity Law provides the government  with the authority to order the telecommunications companies to block services and sources of information that are deemed to be harmful to society.

9. Effectivity

The draft decree is expected to take effect on December 1, 2021, as stated in the document.

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Freedom of expression

In Prolific Day, Vietnam Sentences Six Dissidents to Prison for “Anti-state” Activities

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Nguyen Chi Vung (top), Pham Van Diep (middle), Vo Thuong Trung, Doan Viet Hoan, Ngo Xuan Thanh, and Nguyen Dinh Khue (bottom, left to right) . Photo sources: Kien Thuc, Binh An, and Nguoi Lao Dong newspaper, respectively. Composite photo created by Will Nguyen.


In a particularly damaging day for Vietnamese dissidents, six individuals were sentenced to a total of 26 years in prison for opposing the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV). The convictions on November 26, 2019 bookend an active month for Vietnamese security forces, who have arrested and convicted numerous individuals for their on- and offline “anti-state” activities. 

Nguyen Chi Vung, 38, was sentenced to six years in prison by a court in the southern Mekong Delta province of Bac Lieu. Vung was convicted under Article 117 of the 2015 Penal Code for “Making, storing, distributing or disseminating information, documents and articles against the SRV”. According to Reuters, Vung had “held 33 livestream sessions on Facebook ‘to share distorted information’ and ‘encourage people to participate in protests during national holidays’”.

Pham Van Diep, 54, was convicted under the same article, with a north-central Vietnamese court in Thanh Hoa sentencing him to nine years in prison and five years probation. His indictment stated that he had a nine-year history of expressing online dissent and that he made frequent Facebook posts criticizing the VCP leadership and SRV policies. According to Tuoi Tre newspaper, he had previously printed and distributed anti-SRV flyers in the Lao capital city of Vientiane. On June 28, 2016, Diep was arrested by Laotian authorities, tried in February of 2018, and sentenced to 21 months in prison for “using the territory of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic to oppose neighboring countries”. Lao authorities took him to the Vietnamese border one month after his trial, where he was allowed to re-enter Vietnam.

In Dong Nai, a province bordering the southern hub of Ho Chi Minh City, four individuals were convicted under Article 118 for “Disruption of security”. According to Vietnamese Human Rights Defenders, “[t]he four convicted were arrested on April 25, 2019, for their intention to participate in a peaceful demonstration scheduled on April 30 to mark the 34th anniversary of the fall of the US-backed Saigon regime”. Vo Thuong Trung, 42, and Doan Viet Hoan, 35, were each sentenced to three years in prison, while Ngo Xuan Thanh, 49, and Nguyen Dinh Khue, 41, each received 28 months.

The convictions of these six individuals in one day comes a little over a week after 43-year-old music teacher Nguyen Nang Tinh was sentenced to 11 years in prison and five years house arrest for violating Article 117. According to his lawyers, a Facebook account making anti-SRV posts used the same name as their client. However, they said the account did not, in fact, belong to him. Tinh was arrested May 29, 2019 and convicted on November 16 in the north-central province of Nghe An.

Last week also saw the high-profile arrest of Pham Chi Dung, a journalist with a doctorate in economics, and a founding chairman of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam. Dung, 53, is a former VCP member and is known for his incisive political and economic critiques of both the VCP and SRV. He has written for Voice of America, BBC, Radio Free Asia, NBC News, Nguoi Viet, and Asian Nikkei Review.

Dung’s arrest has been noted by the European Union and condemned by Reporters Without Borders, who hailed him as “an outspoken Vietnamese journalist and leading press freedom defender who for years has been trying to help create an open and informed civil society in Vietnam that is not controlled by its Communist Party.” He is currently being held at the Phan Dang Luu Detention Center in Ho Chi Minh City, one of two centers in the city where political dissidents are usually held while they are being investigated (the other being Chi Hoa Prison). He faces up to 12 years behind bars.

Although freedom of speech, press, and assembly are all guaranteed by Article 25 of the 2013 Vietnamese Constitution, the SRV is a one-party, authoritarian state that does not tolerate challenges to its power. It routinely arrests and convicts activists under Articles 117 and 118 of the penal code, as well as Article 331, which cites  “Abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the State”. Such broadly defined articles are regularly used as a catch-all to target citizens who criticize the VCP or demand political reform. The SRV has long claimed that it does not jail prisoners of conscience, only individuals who violate the law. Human rights groups say the two are not mutually exclusive.

Addendum: On November 28, 2019, two more individuals in Dong Nai were convicted under Article 117. Huynh Minh Tam, 41, and his sister Huynh Thi To Nga, 36, were sentenced to nine and five years of prison, respectively, for making Facebook posts critical of the SRV.


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Human Rights

Vietnam: State-Owned People’s Army Newspaper Defamed Independent Media, Civil Society Organizations

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The defaming article was broadcasted on VTV1 - the national TV Broadcast in Vietnam. Photo credits: Facebook Hien Trinh.

On March 25, 2019, in what could have been a classic libel case, the online newspaper of the Vietnamese Armed Forces defamed some independent newspapers, media, and civil society organizations, including our Vietnamese site – Luat Khoa magazine in an article written by author Nhat Minh.

Vietnam’s national television VTV 1 also broadcasted the same article during its morning news on the same day.

The article accused Luat Khoa magazine and its editor-in-chief, Trinh Huu Long, to have received support from Viet Tan, an overseas Vietnamese political party that has been classified as a “terrorist organization” by the regime.

Among other things, it also alleged that independent newspapers, media, and civil society organizations such as Luat Khoa, Cong Hoa TV, Vietnam Path Movement, and so forth, were promoting “fake democracy,” and that the real intention of these organizations was to misrepresent information about the Vietnamese Communist Party and the government by portraying them in a negative light.

According to the author, some forms of citizen journalism and blogging by individuals who exposed wrongdoings and injustice in society could be criminal conducts.

Examples of bloggers recently imprisoned for exercising their freedom of expression, such as Phan Kim Khanh and Nguyen Van Hoa, were named in the article to support the writer’s position.

The article, in many ways, reinforced the Vietnamese government’s view of independent media in the country. It was this very same view which probably had put Vietnam at number 176 out of 180 on the Reporters Without Border’s World Press Freedom Index in 2018.

It may be a challenge for Vietnam to name one independent media from the list of over 800 news outlets it often uses to prove press freedom exists in the country.

Nevertheless, the article suggested criminal prosecution against the activists and journalists operating these organizations. It also called for stronger and more effective collaboration from the tech companies – such as Facebook and Google – in compliance with the new cybersecurity law.

The article reconfirmed what the Vietnamese government has continued claiming in the past one and a half years, that Facebook has already established a separate channel to resolve requests from Vietnam regarding any information deemed to have violated the country’s social media (rules).

It also paraphrased an unnamed official from the Cybersecurity Bureau of the Ministry of Public Security (Vietnam’s National Police Department) and declared that “Google and Facebook both found Vietnam’s cybersecurity law is ‘suitable’ and will research on amending their policies to be in line with Vietnam’s law.”

The article included a quote from Ann Lavin – Google’s Director of Public Policy and Government Affairs in Asia-Pacific – stating that “Google would respect and follow the domestic laws of host countries, including Vietnam.”

However, the author failed to make it clear to the readers that Ms. Lavin’s quote was taken from a conversation she had with the then Minister of Information and Communication, Truong Minh Tuan, in January 2018 – almost one year before the new cybersecurity took effect. The fact that she is no longer working at Google was also left out.

The article did provide statistics on the removals of contents allegedly done by Google and Facebook upon the government’s request.

It stated that by “the end of June 2018, Google had removed 6,700/7,800 clips from YouTube – a Google’s product – including 300 clips carried subverting contents, inciting subversion against the VCP and the government and 6 YouTube channels got blocked completely.”

It further claimed that “Facebook also removed 1,000 links (out of 5,000 requests) which were deemed to have violated Vietnam’s laws, 107 fake accounts, 137 accounts that defamed, misrepresented, and propagandized against the VCP and the government.”

The information listed on the Google Transparency Report and Facebook’s Government Requests Report for 2018 does not seem to exactly collaborate the claims in the People’s Army Newspaper’s article.

However, these companies’ reports did show a worrying trend of increasing content restrictions in Vietnam and the seeming willingness of tech giants to comply with the government’s requests.

Among the four requests for contents removal from Vietnam listed by Google during the reporting period dated between January-June 2018, we found a particularly troubling one.

Accordingly, the Authority of Broadcasting and Electronic Information, Ministry of Information and Communications in Vietnam had asked Google to remove “over 3,000 YouTube videos that mainly criticized the Communist Party and government officials.” Google admitted that they “restricted the majority of the videos from view in Vietnam, based on Decree 72.”

Decree 72 is a controversial legal document, seeking to curtail the people’s ability to share information on the internet in Vietnam since 2013, half a decade before the cybersecurity law came into existence.

As for Facebook, their reports indicated that the company had complied with a total of 265 content restrictions requests from the Vietnamese government during the first six months of 2018 compares to 22 requests from July-December 2017.

Facebook also released some Vietnamese users’ data to the government upon requests under legal process and emergency requests.

From January-June 2017, Facebook received four requests involving five accounts where they released some information to 25% of the requests. From July-December 2017, Facebook released information in response to 38% of the eight requests, affecting 12 user accounts.

In the first six months of 2018, however, the Vietnamese government made a total of 12 requests which involved 26 accounts, but Facebook only released data in response to 17% of the requests.

The above statistics showed a concerning trend because, before 2017, Facebook’s transparency report indicated that it had never released users’ data to the government under any circumstances.

Reports from Vietnamese activists on the grounds in the past 12 months, however, also indicated a much larger number of accounts removal and content restrictions on Facebook.

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