The current state of freedom in Vietnam is appalling. Scoring a disheartening 19 out of 100 in Freedom House’s 2021 report, Vietnam remains a one-party state where human rights are violated under the guise of protecting national interests for the benefit of the people.
As a result, several human rights defenders, activists, bloggers, and journalists have been illegally detained and sentenced to imprisonment by the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) under trumped-up and dubious charges.
Nowadays, the actions of the VCP and the state forces under its command have wormed their way into the heart of Vietnamese society and are now seen as part and parcel of living under this authoritarian regime.
One of the realities of life under the VCP is having to reluctantly conform to its harsh and uncompromising control over the internet, where vaguely worded laws dictate how a person can be sent to prison for a simple blog post that merely expresses discontent.
In such an environment, normal Vietnamese citizens have to deal with the seemingly arbitrary application of these laws, and as such, are left paralyzed, confused, and bewildered about what they can share online.
Dien Nguyen An Luong’s recent publication, A Study Of Vietnam’s Control Over Online Antistate Content, examines the current state of the Vietnamese government’s power over the internet and attempts to analyze the precarious three-way relationship between the state, the people, and the world-wide-web.
In his work, the author tracks the historical development of the internet in Vietnam from the year 2000 to the present. He states that when the internet in the country was still in its infancy, there were only around 203,000 internet users in the country; this amounted to a tiny 0.25 percent of Vietnam’s population at that time. As such, government regulations were only centered around banning pornography, which some politicians claimed was a “bad influence” on society.
However, the internet in Vietnam quickly became a tool for average citizens, intellectuals, and government critics to share their ideas, criticize the state, and connect with other like-minded individuals. Soon after, the internet population skyrocketed from 203,000 to 3.1 million in 2003, and then to 10.7 million in 2005. At present, three out of four Vietnamese citizens, or around 72 million people, have access to the internet.
As Vietnam’s online population grew, the author says that the priorities of the state shifted; its focus changed from the preservation of “custom and tradition” to the more pressing concerns of safeguarding national security by banning and regulating politically and religiously sensitive sites that allegedly host anti-state content.
When blogs started to become alternate sources of information that stood in contrast to state-controlled media outlets and the prevailing narrative, the Vietnamese government started its crackdown on online criticism and dissent. The author also argues that the Arab Spring uprising in the Middle East further fueled the VCP’s paranoia.
Three factors, the exponential growth of Vietnam’s internet population, the rising popularity of outside sources of information, and revolutions happening outside the country, contributed to the current state of the internet in Vietnam and to the many restrictions on users and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) alike.
Methods of Censorship and Control
The author also expounds on the many practices employed by the VCP to regulate the internet. He begins by tackling Michael Gray’s three generations of internet control which are specific things the Vietnamese government does in order to restrict citizens from accessing certain content.
These include a nationwide firewall to block certain foreign content and distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks against dissidents who weaponize their platform against the state.
In regards to censorship, the author discusses three techniques that the Vietnamese government uses to muffle opposing voices: fear, friction, and flooding.
Fear refers to the arrests of several high-profile individuals and to the severity of punishments for violating the law with the aim to deter individuals and organizations from distributing, analyzing, collecting, or consuming sensitive information. Friction refers to making it difficult to access the information itself by blocking certain websites, the swift removal of social media posts, or rerouting search results. Lastly, flooding refers to bombarding social media platforms with neutral or misleading information in order to drown dissenting voices or sensitive information.
These methods are best exemplified in the 2018 Cybersecurity Law, which codifies several regulations and their corresponding sanctions, and in the formation of Vietnam’s Cyber Unit- a 10,000 person strong military-backed group ordered to manipulate online discourse and enforce the Communist Party’s will.
The Vietnam-China Connection
The report also places great emphasis on the parallels between China and Vietnam in terms of their internet controls and regulations. To put it simply, many of Vietnam’s restrictions on the internet seem to be copied directly from China’s playbook, or else are just slightly modified to better fit Vietnamese society.
For instance, Decree 98, which required blog-owners to only publish their personal content and where blogging platforms were asked to maintain a complete record of their users, seems to be based on a similar measure implemented by the Chinese government in 2005-2006; the government required owners of blogs and websites to register their complete identities and block content considered “unlawful” or “immoral.”
The author also states that China’s 2009 Green Dam project, which required the mandatory installation of state-sponsored software on computers in order to filter content on all computers in the country, was replicated by the Hanoi municipal administration in 2010. It released Decision 15, which mandated the installation of government-commissioned software in all internet cafes in the city.
Lastly, the author provides irrefutable evidence of Vietnam copying or at least taking inspiration from China, with the presence of eerily similar cybersecurity laws in both countries.
Weaponizing Social Media
The author states that when the Chinese government banned Facebook in 2017, Vietnam wanted to do the same, and for a while it was successful. However, the author adds that the VCP realized that a blanket ban on all Western social media platforms was not feasible for the country and instead weaponized the internet to suit its needs.
The VCP’s acceptance of social media led to the state of the Vietnamese internet as we know it today, in which social media is used by the state “to gauge public sentiment, detect local corruption, spearhead disinformation campaigns or squash dissenting voices,” according to the author.
The author refers to this as the repression, legitimation, and co-optation of the internet by the State. Dissent is repressed and silenced. The actions of the state have been legitimized by law. And social media, which was first used by ordinary citizens as a method to discuss and criticize government shortcomings, has become co-opted and is now one of the VCP’s many tools to combat the opposition.
In his work, Dien Nguyen An Luong has managed to present a holistic view of the current state of the internet in Vietnam and he has also been able to expound on the shoddy relationship between the Vietnamese government and its citizens through the lens of its online policies.
His masterful use of language and the simplicity of his tone makes this book digestible for both academics and for those not fully immersed in his field of expertise. In academic writing, it is a blessing to have such an accessible and well-researched piece of work. Likewise, he was able to craft a clear and concise timeline that shows the evolution of Vietnam’s policies over the span of a little more than 20 years, from the year 2000 until today.
Towards the end of his work, the author states that Vietnam may have overestimated the potential of social media in the process of democratization. He adds that “other longstanding and deep-seated socio-economic factors, such as unemployment, poverty, or growing inequalities” tend to be the main driving force behind social change.
However, if we look at the effectiveness and the ruthlessness of how the VCP and other authoritarian nations use social media to their own benefit, perhaps we can also learn how to use this tool more to further our own noble causes with the same vigor and tenacity.
This thought lingers after reading Dien Nguyen An Luong’s work and for future readers, perhaps it may also leave an inkling of a solution.
Dien Nguyen An Luong’s publication may be purchased here.
- Freedom House. (2021, September 21). Vietnam: Freedom in the world 2021 country report. Freedom House. Retrieved February 26, 2022, from https://freedomhouse.org/country/vietnam/freedom-world/2021
- Reed, A. (2022, January 28). Civicus 2022 update: Vietnam's latest attacks on freedom of expression and association. The Vietnamese Magazine. Retrieved February 26, 2022, from https://www.thevietnamese.org/2022/01/civicus-update-january-2022-vietnams-latest-attacks-on-freedom-of-expression-and-association/
- Dien Nguyen An Luong. (n.d.). A Study of Vietnam’s Control over Online anti-state Content. Retrieved March 1, 2022, from https://bookshop.iseas.edu.sg/publication/7796