The Threat Of A Free And Open Internet In Vietnam

The Threat Of A Free And Open Internet In Vietnam
Picture Source: Reuters. Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine.

We now live in the Age of Information, where we can access facts, data, or statistics with a simple touch of a button through our phones or computers. With enough time, commitment, and motivation, anyone can attain baseline theoretical knowledge in various fields with access to the internet.

And if a private individual wants to share what they know, they can easily do so using the many avenues to spread information now available on the World Wide Web. Yet, this ease of access carries with it several caveats, one of which is the rampant spread of misinformation.

Fake news, bogus statistics, and false narratives have sadly become common as we try to navigate our way through the internet. While trusted news outlets, publishers, and independent journalists are doing their part to weed out disinformation, their efforts are not enough to realistically stop, or at the very least, stifle the spread of these lies.

And while these experts continue to research and learn about how best to deal with this issue, for now, the challenge falls on private citizens to exercise their judgment and recognize their biases to discern the truth from what is merely a constructed or false reality. Even though humans are far from rational beings touted by various thinkers and philosophers from the past, this should hopefully be enough to slow down misinformation coming from isolated sources.

Yet, what if campaigns of disinformation were more focused? What if they were run not only by an individual or a small group but by an entire ecosystem that pushes a questionable goal or agenda? And what if this hive mind had enough power, money, and resources to censor alternate sources of information or silence anyone, or anything, that would compromise its meticulously constructed version of the world?

The U.S Department of State’s 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Vietnam tackles several issues plaguing the country: internet freedom. The report states that the Vietnamese government “restricted and disrupted access to the internet, censored online content, imposed criminal sentences for online expression, and monitored private online communications without legal authority.”

Also mentioned are several restrictions on local internet service providers in the country, which the government controls. Those few that are allowed to operate are either in part or wholly owned by the state, which can actively monitor the online activities of the subscribers of these internet services.

The report also states that websites that the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) considers “politically or culturally inappropriate” are also blocked on the Vietnamese internet and cannot be accessed directly. This group includes international sites owned and operated by Vietnamese people residing overseas and several credible news outlets such as Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, and the BBC Vietnamese news service.

The meddling of the Vietnamese government does not end there. The report adds the situation of websites and social media networks – such as Facebook and Google – where Vietnam already gives the privilege to operate in the country. Yet, these companies are still being compelled to fully cooperate with the Ministry of Information and Communications to weed out and identify news and information that the government considers “bad” or “toxic.”

They added that companies and organizations that operate social network sites, host blogs, or provide information about politics, economics, culture, or society must give comprehensive details about their plans and set up their servers within Vietnam. It is done for the convenience of the Vietnamese government so that when it requests the personal information of the account holders, it will undoubtedly have them. Hence, all information collected by these companies is stored for 90 days, with specific metadata being held for up to two years.

The report highlights the government’s crackdown against private citizens, journalists, and bloggers who use their platforms to criticize and complain about the actions of the VCP or expose the many allegations and manifestations of corruption that plagues the Vietnamese government. These brave men and women, with our co-founder and co-editor, Pham Doan Trang, being one of them, bear the brunt of the government’s ire and often face the possibility of “arrest, short-term detentions, surveillance, intimidation, and the illegal confiscation of [their or their family’s] computers and cell phones.”

Despite the severity of the restrictions on the Vietnamese internet, this is not something new; it is just another manifestation of the Vietnamese government’s ever-tightening noose around the neck of free speech and press freedom.

The careful monitoring of websites, internet service providers, social media programs, and bloggers is the latest in a long line of the party’s transgressions against outlets that challenge the narrative the VCP tries so hard to instil as truth. And with the passage of the controversial Cyber Security Law in 2018, it is evident that the government is trying to replicate its success in controlling all forms of printed media in a more modern context, according to an article written in January 2019 by Thoi Nguyen in The Diplomat.

Yet, with all their control and propaganda, what is this elusive narrative that the VCP is trying so hard to maintain? What is the story they want every one of their citizens to accept as gospel and as the absolute truth?

The Party is perfect, and that the Party only has the people’s best interests at heart?

The VCP’s version of reality has itself at the helm of Vietnam; it paints the Party as the almighty saviour of the country from the hands of the West. It construes itself as the central, and perhaps, the sole reason for Vietnam’s miraculous rebirth from conflict and civil war to its current state. The Party believes the VCP, guided by the spirit of Ho Chi Minh, should continue to carry the nation towards progress for all eternity.

Such is the display of bravado, arrogance, and delusion of the Vietnamese government.

Hence, it continues its charade, striving to censor masterfully, control, and monitor what occurs in Vietnam’s corner of the internet, a tactic not too different from what China practices. At the same time,  it continues to peddle its story to its citizens and the rest of the world,

All this leads to a peculiar reversal of roles where misinformation comes not from the flawed thought process of the ill-informed or the writings of misguided conspiracy theorists. Instead, it comes from the precise calculations and machinations of the state, which can control most of what people consume in mainstream media. And if the people are constantly bombarded with lies and misdirection, they will eventually accept these falsehoods as fact and gospel.

As such, the task of revealing new truths to the Vietnamese people and raising awareness about what is going on outside the government’s online information bubble lies in the hands of individuals. It falls on independent journalists, writers, bloggers, and small online publications to crack open the Vietnamese firewall, despite the risks, to make citizens question what they hold to be true. The threat to the free and open internet in Vietnam is genuine to the government as it exposes their lies and renders them obsolete.

For when the state fails to provide the truth, it becomes our duty to do it ourselves.

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