Restricted Cyberspace: Vietnam Uses Cybersecurity Laws to Muzzle Online Speech

Restricted Cyberspace: Vietnam Uses Cybersecurity Laws to Muzzle Online Speech
Graphic: The Vietnamese Magazine

The Ministry of Communications and Information declared [1] in 2022 that the number of the country's internet users had exceeded 72 million people, accounting for roughly 72% of the total population. With tens of millions of people on the net, the Southeast Asian country ranked the 13th largest internet user in 2022. Vietnam joined the global network in November 1997.

However, as Vietnam grew more interconnected with the world and its tech-savvy youth became increasingly active on social media, the government imposed regulations on what its citizens could say and write on the internet.

The Cybersecurity Law [2], passed in 2018, was one of Vietnam’s most noticeable pieces of legislation to curb online free speech. Since 2013, the government has also adopted four decrees stipulating what internet users can say and publish online, imposing fines and punishments for those who violate the regulations.

Freedom House, an independent pro-democracy advocacy organization, in its latest report, Freedom on the Net 2023, [3] consequently declared Vietnam “not free” regarding internet freedom. The report states that the government has “continued to enforce stringent controls over the country’s online environment,” while “activists and ordinary people are often punished for their online activities.”

A Plethora of Regulations

On the one hand, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has recognized [4] that the right to privacy is “an expression of human dignity and is linked to the protection of autonomy and personal identity.” Many countries have passed new legislation protecting their citizens’ human rights in cyberspace, including the right to access information and the right to control their digital personal data.

Meanwhile, Vietnam’s 2018 Cybersecurity Law and other decrees subsequently issued to instruct the utilization of this law have concerned the country's local activists and internet freedom advocates.

It is because these legal documents contain vague regulations on the protection of internet users’ data and infringe on their freedom of speech by punishing people posting content deemed “inappropriate” and ordering tech companies to remove such content upon government request. Vietnam’s model of internet control increasingly resembles that of China.

We can start with Decree 72, [5] enacted in 2013, which manages the provision of internet services and regulates the circulation of online information. Section 1, Article 5 of this decree forbids the use of internet services to “oppose the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” “cause harm to national security,” and “sabotage the great national unity bloc.” Similar to Article 331 of the Penal Code, Decree 72 also bans internet users in Vietnam from “posting information that distorts, slanders, or insults the reputation of organizations and individuals.”

Last July, the communications ministry proposed [6] a new decree that would replace Decree 72 and made it open for public consultation. This draft document contains more stringent requirements for Vietnamese internet users. For example, the proposal demands [7] online influencers acquire a license from the authorities to host live streams on social media. Social media users are also obliged to authenticate their digital identity. More worryingly, it authorizes [8] the police to order social media platforms to block individuals violating the Cybersecurity Law.

Other decrees regarding cyberspace control in Vietnam are equally alarming. Decree 174/2013, [9] which stipulates a punishment of the violators of telecommunications and information technology regulations, imposes a fine of up to 50 million dong [$2017] on individuals who use the internet to “oppose the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” “distribute reactionary ideology,” or “deny revolutionary achievements.”

Meanwhile, Decree 15/2020, [10] enacted after passing the Law on Cybersecurity, seeks to punish social media platforms that “fail to provide personal information of users linked to terrorism and other criminal activities at the request of competent state agencies.” This section violates citizens' right to privacy. It also levies fines on internet users convicted of violating loosely defined terms such as storing and spreading “information that harms the reputation of organizations and individuals” and “information inconsistent with the state's interests.”

Decree 53, [11] which the Vietnamese government approved in 2022 to specify and amend certain terms and conditions of the law, is directly concerned with the Law on Cybersecurity.

This decree specifies the establishment of two bureaus in charge of “upholding cybersecurity”: the Department of Cybersecurity and High-Tech Crime Prevention under the Ministry of Public Security and the Department of Military Security Protection under the Ministry of National Defense. The police and the military can order the forced removal of online content that supposedly “endangers national security.”

Targeting Free Speech

Although Vietnam’s many regulations and laws protect internet users from cyber threats and harm, their effectiveness in deterring crimes is questionable.

A standing committee of the Vietnamese National Assembly reported [12] in their regular meeting in 2022 that the crime rate in cyberspace has increased. The committee vowed to combat the “intentions of hostile and reactionary forces to sabotage the state” instead of dealing with more urgent threats such as online fraud and other attacks targeting the country’s digital infrastructure. Vietnam became [13] the victim of nearly 14,000 cyberattacks in 2023, mostly phishing and malware infections, a 9.5% increase compared to the previous year. And that number is poised to grow.

In reality, the Vietnamese police have primarily utilized cybersecurity regulations to penalize and prosecute internet users for their online activities. Social users in the country are frequently fined and summoned for police interrogation due to their online criticisms of the government. In more severe cases, the authorities use the 2018 Law on Cybersecurity as the legal ground to criminalize online defamation, as evidenced [14] by the case of media influencer Nguyen Phuong Hang and journalist Dang Thi Han Ni. [15]

The Law on Cybersecurity and other decrees regulating the Internet have put a muzzle on social media users. They also contradict the government’s commitment to upholding freedom of expression, especially online. While the country’s digital infrastructure could be improved in the face of growing cyber threats and other attacks, it is recommended that Vietnam should first modify its cybersecurity law to align it with international standards in the digital age.


[1] Ministry of Communications and Information. Viet Nam has over 72 million Internet users. Bộ Thông Tin Và Truyền Thông.

[2] Thư Viện Pháp Luật. (2023b, July 3). Luật An ninh mạng 2018.

[3] Freedom House. (n.d.). Vietnam.

[4] OHCHR. (n.d.). A/HRC/55/46: Legal safeguards for personal data protection and privacy in the digital age.

[5] Thư Viện Pháp Luật. (2024, March 15). Nghị định 72/2013/NĐ-CP về quản lý, cung cấp, sử dụng dịch vụ Internet và thông tin trên mạng.

[6] Ministry of Communications and Information. (n.d.-a). Dự thảo Nghị định thay thế Nghị định số 72/2013/NĐ-CP ngày 15/7/2013 của Chính phủ về quản lý, cung cấp, sử dụng dịch vụ Internet và thông tin trên mạng và Nghị định 27/2018/NĐ-CP ngày 01/3/2018 của Chính phủ sửa đổi, bổ sung Nghị định 72/2013/NĐ-CP.

[7] Thịnh V. (2023, September 8). Đề xuất có giấy phép mới được livestream trên mạng xã hội. Báo Pháp Luật TP. Hồ Chí Minh.

[8] Ministry of Industry and Commerce. (2023, September 9). Điều chỉnh phù hợp Dự thảo Nghị định về quản lý dịch vụ Internet. Báo Công Thương Điện Tử, Kinh Tế, Chính Trị, Xã Hội.

[9] Thư Viện Pháp Luật. (2023c, July 18). Nghị định 174/2013/NĐ-CP quy định xử phạt vi phạm hành chính trong lĩnh vực bưu chính, viễn thông, công nghệ thông tin và tần số vô tuyến điện.

[10] Thư Viện Pháp Luật. (2023d, July 28). Nghị định 15/2020/NĐ-CP quy định xử phạt vi phạm hành chính trong lĩnh vực bưu chính, viễn thông, tần số vô tuyến điện, công nghệ thông tin và giao dịch điện tử.

[11] Thư Viện Pháp Luật. (2023a, June 3). Nghị định 53/2022/NĐ-CP hướng dẫn Luật An ninh mạng.

[12] Gia Tăng Tỷ Lệ Tội Phạm Trên Không Gian Mạng Và Thị Trường Chứng Khoán. (n.d.). Cổng Thông Tin Điện Tử Quốc Hội.

[13] Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. Vietnam law enforcement to tackle growing cybercrime. (n.d.).

[14] The Vietnamese Magazine (2023, July 30). Vietnamese officials sentenced to life over scandalous rescue flight bribery.

[15] The Vietnamese Magazine (2024, March 4). Vietnam arrests activist Nguyen Chi Tuyen; leaked party document shows Vietnam’s efforts to restrict human rights further.

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