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.