Washington has voiced concerns to the Vietnamese government over a draft decree on strict new Internet controls in the communist state, calling the proposal “unworkable” and a threat to freedom of expression in the country.
The U.S. Embassy in Vietnam issued its comments in a letter addressed to the Vietnamese Ministry of Information and Communications dated last week, but made public Thursday.
Vietnam, which France-based Reporters Without Borders lists as an “Enemy of the Internet,” is expected to release the proposed Decree on Management, Provision and Use of Internet Services and Information on the Network in June.
Under the proposal, Internet users would be required to register with their real names. In addition, foreign Internet companies would be forced to relocate their data centers and establish local offices in Vietnam.
The U.S. said the proposed measures would hamper commercial development of the Internet sector and threaten netizens’ rights to express their ideas freely.
“The United States is concerned with requirements that a broad range of suppliers—including those that are intermediaries, rather than content generators—play an active role in filtering content and be sanctioned if they fail to adequately monitor actions by third parties,” the letter said.
“These provisions would be extremely difficult to implement and would impose such prohibitive regulatory burdens that many innovative suppliers simply might not be able to enter the market or, if currently present, might abandon it for other markets.”
Washington also took issue with various provisions of the proposed decree which it called “overly broad and vague,” and “likely to negatively impact individuals’ rights to freedom of expression.”
It noted that the right to freedom of expression is guaranteed under Vietnam’s constitution and that the Vietnamese government had signed international obligations to ensure that right.
“All countries face the common problem of addressing domestic regulatory concerns relating to services offered over globally interconnected networks that affect their citizens,” it said.
“It is neither feasible nor practical for any one country to set rules for a global medium, and the benefits such networks offer are severely diminished if suppliers must become ‘local’ in all countries.”
Instead of “highly prescriptive rules” that would be difficult to enforce, Washington suggested an open dialogue with interested parties from around the world to discuss alternative approaches to addressing “legitimate concerns.”
Congress takes issue
The decree also drew the attention of U.S. Congressman Frank Wolf, who wrote a letter Wednesday to Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of the popular Facebook social media platform.
Facebook is intermittently blocked in Vietnam, though netizens can access the site with relative ease.
In the letter, Wolf said the decree “would impact both Internet companies doing business in Vietnam and millions of Vietnamese citizens looking to the Internet as a source of news and information about the outside world.”
“This decree … would make it illegal to post anything online critical of the Vietnamese government,” he said, adding that the requirement for users to provide their real names and personal information would provide a “means for the government to track them.”
Wolf called the requirement that Internet companies inform the government of any prohibited activities that take place on their sites “deeply problematic as it could make companies … complicit in government repression.”
He concluded by calling on Zuckerberg to set an example to other American Internet companies by promoting the principles of democracy and human rights through Facebook’s corporate actions if the new set of online restrictions are enacted in Vietnam.
Zuckerberg vacationed in Vietnam last December with his now-wife Priscilla Chan.
Media controls remain restricted in Vietnam, which New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused of mounting a sophisticated and sustained attack on online dissent, including by detaining and intimidating anti-government bloggers.
Reporters Without Borders says at least three journalists and 17 bloggers are currently in jail in the one-party state.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.