On a global scale, the state of internet freedom and its associated human rights, such as freedom of speech and freedom of expression, has been trending downwards; the steady rise of authoritarianism, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ongoing Ruso-Ukraine conflict have only aided in the weakening of democratic ideals and values all over the world.
Freedom House, in its annual report Freedom On the Net 2022, tracks the development and deterioration of internet freedom in several countries and territories. In their research, they have stated that in at least 53 out of these 210 nations and locations, “[internet] users faced legal repercussions for expressing themselves online, [which often led] to draconian prison terms.”
Unsurprisingly, Vietnam continues to underperform when put against the metrics and analytics of Freedom House, and the state of internet freedom in the country leaves much to be desired.
In its report, Freedom House ranks countries on a scale of 0 to 100, with 0 representing the least free conditions and 100 signifying conditions wherein freedom is almost certainly guaranteed. The maximum score a country can have is 100, and this total is divided into three categories: Obstacles to Access (25 pts.), Limits to Content (35 pts.), and Violations of User Rights (40 pts.). Several specific questions used by Freedom House to determine a country’s appropriate standing are also included within each of these categories.
Countries that attain a grade between 70-100 are classified as Free, those with scores between 40-69 are noted as being Partly Free, and nations with a score from 0-39 are considered to be Not Free.
Key Events in Vietnam
Vietnam’s rating for 2022 is 22; this is also the same score it was given in the previous two years.
While the section on Vietnam in last year’s report was centered on general elections, the government’s attempt to shut down Facebook and the draft decree on personal data protection, the current report highlights a more recent and different set of events that showcase the consistency of Vietnam’s actions in regards to its repression of internet freedom.
Firstly, the report highlights the Vietnamese government’s attempts at online censorship by ordering international social media companies to remove thousands of pieces of content they deem particularly critical of the state and the authorities.
Secondly, the report discusses the increased restrictions, regulations, and fines placed on websites that host content or online speech that the Vietnamese government deems “illegal.”
Thirdly, Freedom House focuses on the persistent and constant arrests and imprisonment of human rights defenders and normal internet users in the country for their online activities. Specifically mentioned is the 10-year sentence issued to Trinh Ba Phuong, an activist known for aiding the villagers after the police raid on Dong Tam.
Lastly, the privacy concerns revolving around the Vietnamese government’s COVID-19 tracking app and the creation of new identification cards are emphasized in the report.
Internet Freedom in Vietnam
Regarding Obstacles to Access, Vietnam scores 12 out of a maximum of 25 points. The report states that internet penetration in the country was at around 71 percent by the end of 2021, which is a 2.30 percent increase from its prior score of 68.70 percent. Meanwhile, smartphone penetration was listed as 61.37 percent. Internet speeds on mobile and broadband platforms remain decent, while by December 2021, 4G signals were reported to have 99.8 percent coverage all over the country.
However, Vietnam faced internet disruptions when it was placed under partial or full lockdown during the COVID-19 outbreak. In February 2022, the disruptions, which affected 3 undersea internet cables, also led to a period of difficult internet access.
Access to the internet continues to become more affordable in the country, even for those living in rural areas. However, those who live in extreme poverty, such as people who reside in ethnic minority communities in far-flung mountainous areas, continue to face limited access.
The Vietnamese government continues to retain its ability to “restrict connectivity” because it has technical control over the country’s internet infrastructure. Related to this, the state-owned Vietnam Posts and Telecommunications Group (VNPT) and military-owned Viettel account for two-thirds of the major providers that allocate bandwidth to internet service providers (ISP). The report provides an example of the Vietnamese government’s control when it cites an incident wherein Facebook servers were taken offline in February 2020; access to Facebook was restored only after the company agreed to remove “antistate” content.
Although anyone may open and operate an ISP in Vietnam, the report states that a lack of political ties or economic clout makes it difficult for new players to enter the market, which three providers currently dominate: Viettel (which controls about 39.5 percent), VNPT (38.5 percent), and the private Corporation for Financing and Promoting Technology (15.6 percent).
The report adds that the regulation of digital technology in the country is done “in an ad hoc, nontransparent manner, without public consultation” and that any government body could theoretically order censorship of any online content.
Regarding Limits to Content, Vietnam scores 6 out of a maximum of 35. The report highlights the effectiveness of the country’s content-filtering system, which targets high-profile blogs, websites with many followers, any content which challenges the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP), the maritime/border dispute with mainland China, religion, and discussions involving social unrest, political dissent, and human rights.
Many international news websites, such as Radio Free Asia (RFA), the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), and Human Rights Watch (HRW), have reported unstable connections in Vietnam. Likewise, social media companies, such as Facebook, are constantly threatened with being taken down if they do not implement larger content restrictions in line with the VCP’s demands.
Also mentioned in the report are the ongoing effects of implementing the 2019 Cybersecurity Law, which demands social media companies to remove content at the state's request. This was observed when Facebook blocked or removed 3,377 posts and banned several internet users from the platform, when Google removed 13,141 videos from YouTube, and when TikTok removed 1,180 videos.
Heavy fines have also been levied against online publications which publish so-called “false information,” while the police have pressured individual users to remove certain things they posted online; the latter was observed when state authorities arrested Vo Hoang Tho for criticizing the state’s COVID-19 policies.
These actions of the Vietnamese government are given legal weight by the Cybersecurity Law and Decree 70/2021/ND-CP, which forces both foreign and domestic websites to “comply with Vietnamese online content regulations.” This decree requires websites to remove “illegal” content within 24 hours and provide their advertiser information to the government. Failure to comply can result in heavy penalties, including administrative fines.
The report also states that the Vietnamese government exercises a “high degree of control” of online content publication. All content produced by news outlets must go through in-house censorship and editing before publication. The VCP also gives these news outlets detailed instructions regarding which themes, stories, and news beats should be reported on or suppressed.
Because of this strict control environment and the high chance of criminal prosecution, the report highlights the plight of many online journalists, commentators, and even ordinary internet users. Vietnamese citizens often practice a form of self-censorship whenever they post anything in Vietnamese cyberspace. The government's actions have chilled the populace, and many people have grown fearful of exercising their right to free speech.
Likewise, media outlets do their best not to be remotely associated with activists, dissident groups, or democratic ideals. Online advertisers also try to keep distance from online outlets, which are critical of the VCP and its policies. If the Vietnamese government deems that they are complicit in spreading “false information,” they may be penalized with hefty fines, and staff may be sent to prison.
All these factors have led to an online space dominated by one prevailing narrative where disinformation is actively spread and propagated by the government. Even though educated Vietnamese youth can easily find ways to bypass state censorship and access alternative news sources, government-run outlets continue to dominate the media landscape.
Regarding Violation of User Rights, Vietnam scores four out of a maximum of 40. Even though the Vietnamese Constitution affirms the right to free expression, the VCP has constantly used formal and informal measures to suppress this right. According to the report, the judiciary in Vietnam is also not independent, and state authorities often flout due process.
Several regulations, such as the Cybersecurity Law, the Penal Code, and the Publishing Code, are often used to penalize, fine, and imprison internet users and journalists. Articles 109, 117, and 331 of the Penal Code are normally used to “prosecute and imprison bloggers and online activists for subversion, anti-state propaganda, and abusing democratic freedoms.” Likewise, lawyers are also held criminally responsible for failure to report their clients to the authorities for various crimes, making them reluctant agents of the state.
Furthermore, the Cybersecurity Law also compels Vietnamese users to register accounts on social media using their real names. The law also requires tech companies to verify and confirm the identities of their users.
The report cites several instances of journalists and activists imprisoned for their work. The cases of Pham Doan Trang, an internationally renowned journalist and human rights advocate, Trinh Ba Phuong, and Nguyen Thi Tam were mentioned in the report. All three of them were imprisoned for spreading “anti-state propaganda” about their online actions, advocacy, and work.
According to the report, the number of Vietnamese citizens fined for online activities surged during the COVID-19 pandemic. They were summoned to police stations and were informed that what they posted online was either misleading, false, or offensive.
Related to the issue of privacy are Vietnam’s COVID-19 tracing applications. The report states that the government has released around 20 of these apps and that one particular program, Bluezone, feeds user information to the government without the consent of its users. In May 2021, Vietnam’s Ministry of Health instructed local governments to sanction individuals who did not register their information with Bluezone or any other COVID-19 tracking app when they entered certain public spaces. The report notes that these privacy concerns were never fully addressed by authorities.
The issuance of chip-based identity cards in Vietnam also raised issues about privacy. These cards store user data in a centralized government database which is accessible to State officials. While these cards are said to make public services, financial transactions, vehicle registration, social welfare registration, and the like easier to access, there are several questions regarding how well-protected this data is.
The personal information of overseas Vietnamese journalists and members of private and public-sector organizations is also constantly at risk. The report states that FireEye, a California-based cybersecurity company, has looked into developing Vietnam’s cyberespionage capabilities. The company cites several attacks by Ocean Lotus (APT32) on the data of these individuals. FireEye concluded that the data accessed by APT32 has “very little use to any party other than the Vietnamese government.”
In some situations, service providers and tech companies in Vietnam are also required by law to monitor their users’ activities. The report cites Decree 53, which compels companies to “store personal data on Vietnamese users within the country and provide that data to the government on request, and Decree 72, which requires social networks to “provide the personal information of users related to terrorism, crime, and violations of law” to “competent authorities on request.”
Likewise, the Law on Information Security requires companies to “share user data without their consent at the request of competent state agencies, mandates that authorities be given decryption keys on request, and introduces licensing requirements for tools that offer encryption as a primary function.”
Individuals who garner the attention of the government and State forces because of their online activities are “subject to frequent physical attacks, job loss, severed internet access, travel restrictions, and other rights violations.” The Freedom House report cites several instances of activists and journalists who have faced physical abuse and torture while in detention and other cases of illegal abduction, kidnapping, or house arrest. The families of dissidents have also been targets of this harassment. The government’s actions have led several human rights advocates to cease their activities for the safety and protection of their loved ones.
Internet freedom and the safety of internet users in Vietnam continue to be under constant attack by the state. The Vietnamese government continues to act with impunity in its bid to control the prevailing news narratives in traditional media, social media, and cyberspace.
Since 2020, Vietnam has seen only a negligible change in protecting freedom of speech and expression according to Freedom House’s standards. The implementation of new laws and regulations only seems to strengthen the VCP’s hold on citizens and cement its holding on power.
Despite this, the people of Vietnam continue to express their displeasure, as seen in the public outcry regarding the government’s COVID-19 policies. Even when faced with the risk of arrest or severe financial sanctions, normal Vietnamese citizens were not forced into silence.
Following Vietnam’s successful bid to re-enter the United Nations Human Rights Council for the 2023-2025 term, more eyes will be on the country in the foreseeable future. Vietnam will be under deeper scrutiny by its international peers and various human rights organizations.
Vietnam must change or risk becoming a laughing stock on the international stage. It has to adapt and commit to the proper adherence to international human rights standards or become a pariah among the other nations of the world.
The Freedom House report on Vietnam can be found here.
Freedom House’s full methodology can be found here.
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