On September 21, Freedom House, a non-profit organization based in Washington D.C., released its annual “Freedom on the Net” report, classifying Vietnam as “not free” in its annual 2021 ranking.
A Freedom House chart evaluates the state of internet freedom in 70 countries this year, based on their performance in three different criteria: Obstacles to Access, Limits on Content, and Violation of User Rights. Trinh Huu Long, a co-founder of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam and an editor at The Vietnamese Magazine, is the author of this report’s Vietnam chapter.
According to Freedom House, the scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free). Overall, Vietnam totalled 22 on the 100-point measuring scale, remaining the same as last year’s score and falling two points from the 2019 report.
There could be several reasons, and one of them includes the Vietnamese government’s threats to shut down services of foreign social networks, such as Facebook and Google. If those companies refuse to comply with its censorship demands on critical content, the government will shut them down. Meanwhile, the Freedom House report also cites a Vietnamese draft decree on personal data protection released for public comments earlier this year. If passed, this law would require internet providers and technology companies to locally store Vietnamese users’ data in the country and hand it over to the government upon demand.
Vietnam has also been ranked  “not free” in Freedom House’s annual “Freedom in the World” chart. For many local activists, these results are hardly surprising.
Vietnam has experienced steady economic growth in the past decades, with its youth becoming increasingly active on social media. By the end of 2020, over 70 percent  of the country’s population, equal to around 60 million people, had access to the internet. These statistics brought about the development of a new civic space. However, as the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) perpetually controls almost every aspect of social life with an iron fist, this rapidly expanding cyberspace, which extends beyond the Party’s reach, is considered an underlying threat to the regime.
To assert its control over this novel avenue of free speech and dissent, the VCP has employed multiple tactics. Some of their methods include deploying an army of “public opinion shapers” tasked with disseminating propaganda, punishing local dissidents, and applying pressure on foreign companies to aid in its censorship demands.
Yet, the bigger picture is not as grim as it might look. Despite censorship, online threats, and other hindrances, there are still several bright prospects for the future of internet freedom in Vietnam.
Opportunities for a More Liberated Internet in Vietnam
Despite its poor record in limiting online content and history of violating user rights, Vietnam has achieved significant improvements in assuring equal internet access to its citizens, as clarified in the “Obstacles to Access” section.
Improved internet infrastructure, which leads to faster connection speeds, decreased subscription costs, and high smartphone penetration, has played an essential role in making the internet more affordable and accessible to most people. Given that around two-thirds of the population currently lives in the countryside, social media platforms have become an alternate source of information for specific Vietnamese audiences who stand in opposition to highly propagandized and more traditional forms of media.
Recent statistics  show that television viewership in rural areas fell to 86% while internet penetration reached 91%. Still, Freedom House emphasizes that “connectivity remains out of reach for those living in extreme poverty, which is found in many communities of [ethnic minorities] in mountainous areas.”
As young Vietnamese become more educated and skilled in technological know-how, they are “increasingly turning to blogs, social media platforms, and other online news sources for information, rather than state television and radio [broadcasts],” Freedom House reported.
These young tech-savvy internet users also actively acquire new tools, which are “well-known” and “can be found with a simple Google search, for circumventing censorship and bypassing firewalls.”
Vietnamese people spend more time  on social media than their Asian peers, with Facebook and Google services (Youtube and Instagram) among the most popular platforms  in the country. As of January 2021, there were about 68 million  Facebook users in Vietnam; seven in every 10 Vietnamese people have an account on Facebook.
While many of its authoritarian counterparts, most notably China, have constructed solid and massive firewalls fencing themselves off international internet services, Vietnamese internet users can still chat with their Facebook friends or watch videos on Youtube. Despite periodic blockages and slowdowns during “sensitive events,” full and comprehensive censorship currently remains impossible for the Vietnamese authorities to implement.
Dien Nguyen An Luong, a well-known op-ed contributor to The New York Times, provides  some reasons to explain why it is too late for Vietnam to control social media.
First of all, he states that this can be attributed to the country’s lack of financial and technological resources to build domestic social networking services that could challenge those coming from big tech companies in Silicon Valley like China has been doing. Dien adds that Vietnam’s “mild approach to keep internet business and e-commerce growing” has also helped create a “hybrid infrastructure that thrives on developing and adapting faster than the government’s ability to regulate and control.” And finally, he concludes that Vietnamese internet users “have always been able to find workarounds” to the restrictions imposed by their government.
The Government’s Iron Fist
Yet, Vietnam still faces several hurdles that hinder the country’s momentum towards a more liberal internet environment. Censorship is perhaps one of the most severe threats.
As the Vietnamese government is intolerant and fearful of dissent, various methods have been deployed to silence critics and keep online discussions under control. Among these tactics are blocking “toxic” webpages, censoring sensitive content, and forcing social media companies to comply with the state’s censorship demands.
Vietnam has scored poorly in most criteria in the “Limits on Content” section of the Freedom House’s report. Unlike China, the authoritarian Vietnamese government commonly uses methods to suppress the civic internet space while remaining seemingly “free” on the surface.
For example, Facebook and Google are still accessible in Vietnam, but their users are always under constant surveillance from cyber security forces. Furthermore, the passing of the controversial and opaque Cybersecurity Law in 2019 has granted Vietnamese authorities more power to request social networking sites to remove and delete content deemed as “anti-state,” “malicious,” or “illegal.”
Besides these “official” practices under the Cybersecurity Law, the VCP has also deployed “unofficial” methods, such as throttling the connection to local servers in order to coerce foreign companies to carry out censorship, harassing activists and journalists, restricting access to blogs or online newspapers which criticize the state, and mobilizing the Force 47 Cyber Unit . Force 47 is an army of online “public opinion shapers” whose job is to steer online discussions in accordance with Party guidelines.
Meanwhile, online speech and freedom of expression have continued to be suppressed, as reported in the “Violations of User Rights” category.
In theory, the right to freedom of expression and access to information is enshrined in the Vietnamese Constitution. However, Vietnam fell short of its commitment to securing such rights for its citizens. The VCP continues to maintain control of all levels of cyberspace.
Vietnamese authorities also warned high school and university students not to share, comment on the country’s historical and political disinformation in cyberspace. An article from Luat Khoa Magazine in 2019 states  that the reason why there has not been a youth movement in Vietnam compares to other places, such as Hong Kong, is because students have been encouraged not to “read unauthorized posts, [and] circulate unregulated information on social media.” Otherwise, they might risk getting expelled.
The watchful eye of the government constantly scrutinizes local activists, bloggers, and independent journalists. They can be penalized for simply engaging in online activities such as writing posts, live streaming newsworthy events, or publicizing any information that the government considers “sensitive” or “inappropriate.”
Legislation  is being used to punish and silence online critics, such as Article 109 of the Penal Code, which penalizes citizens “carrying out activities aiming to overthrow the people’s administration,” and Article 117 for those “making, storing, disseminating or propagandizing materials and products that aim to oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” According to Freedom House, since the legal terms found in these laws are vaguely defined and easily manipulated, the trials and proceedings related to online speech are “often brief, and predetermined.” If found guilty, offenders could also face “years-long prison sentences.”
To further expand its total control over cyberspace in Vietnam, the VCP has compelled Facebook and Google to become its tools for censorship and harassment of citizens . In a 78-page report, “Let us Breathe!”: Censorship and criminalization of online expression in Viet Nam,” Amnesty International (AI) documents and exposes the current situation of social media users in Vietnam, along with how the repression of online speech is aided by world’s tech giants such as Facebook and Google.
The AI report illustrates that Vietnamese social media users “face the constant threat of arbitrary arrest, prosecution, and other forms of harassment in retaliation for exercising their right of freedom of expression online.” At the same time, they could also get blocked on social media and have their posts deleted; their personal data could also be handed to the state’s security department if demanded.
The Vietnamese Ministry of Information and Communications recently introduced a code of conduct  to direct the online behavior of social media users, state organizations, and social media providers alike. The new code encourages internet users to “post positive content” about the country while prohibiting those which “affect the interests of the state” and requires social networking sites to “deal with users in accordance with Vietnamese law” by deleting content upon the government’s request.
The new code, while it is not legally binding , has sparked considerable concerns for local internet users and social activists. Many of them fear that the new regulation is a warning sign from the government and will lead to further encroachments in the country’s already restrictive cyberspace.
Building upon its insatiable desire to shape online discussions, censor “sensitive information,” and harass activists, the VCP wants to further infringe on the personal freedom of more than 60 million internet users in Vietnam by telling them what to think, do, or express on the internet.
But what is truly disheartening is that Vietnam has all the conditions needed to make internet freedom thrive and prosper; it has the infrastructure in place, and cyberspace has never been more accessible. Yet, it will never reach this ideal if the government continues to maintain and strengthen its grip on freedom while refusing to let its people speak.
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