Facebook Bowed to ‘Vietnam’s Extortion’ by Censoring Content, Human Rights Watch Says

Eugene Whong
facebook-vietnam-crop.jpg An internet user browses through a Vietnamese government's Facebook page in Hanoi, Vietnam in a file photo.

The Vietnamese government said Thursday that Facebook should operate according to local laws, just a day after the social media giant was called out by human rights organizations for caving to Hanoi’s demands to remove unfavorable content.

Reuters news agency reported Tuesday that Facebook’s local servers in Vietnam were taken offline earlier in the year until the company gave in to the demands of the government to remove posts, a period of about seven weeks when the website was often not usable by Facebook’s 65 million users in Vietnam.

The company had bowed to the “government of Vietnam’s extortion,” argued New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a statement Thursday, joining a chorus of rights groups critical of Facebook’s decision.

“Now other countries know how to get what they want from the company, to make them complicit in violating the right to free speech,” said John Sifton, HRW’s Asia advocacy director.

“The government of Vietnam shouldn’t have throttled the platform’s traffic in the first place, but Facebook shouldn’t have agreed to its demands,” he added.

“It’s hard to see how Facebook can live up to its human rights obligations when it’s helping Vietnam censor free speech,” Sifton said.

HRW’s statement echoed several points brought up by Amnesty International and other rights organizations Wednesday, including the charge that Facebook was helping Vietnam trample on freedom of expression.

The statement also said that Facebook should publicly explain how it came to the decision to comply with the government requests, and that the United States and other countries should have put diplomatic pressure on Vietnam to help Facebook stand up to the pressure from Hanoi.

But the Vietnamese government said Facebook had a responsibility to abide by local laws if it wants to do business in Vietnam.

“These companies must fully implement their tax and social responsibilities,” foreign ministry spokesman Ngo Toan Thang was quoted by Reuters as saying in a news conference Thursday, after he was asked about the report that broke Tuesday.

The spokesman said that the company had agreed to obey Vietnam’s laws and regulations, and the country would continue monitoring to ensure Facebook upholds its commitment.

“Information and communication firms should cooperate with the government of Vietnam to build a healthy and safe cyber environment,” he said.

Facebook maintains that it respects human rights.

In an email exchange with RFA’s Vietnamese Service Wednesday, a company spokesperson said Facebook would do everything in its power to “rigorously protect and defend the fundamental rights of all internet users - such as the right to freedom of expression.”

“Although we do not agree with these laws, if we continued to push back on lawful government requests to block access to content in Vietnam, it is highly likely our platforms would be blocked in their entirety,” the spokesperson said.

“The net result of this is even greater restrictions on speech and expression - all voices in Vietnam would be silenced,” she said.

The spokesperson wrote to RFA on Thursday, saying Facebook “will not be complying with every request flagged to us by the government.”

Since January the Vietnamese government has been actively cracking down on dissent expressed on social media. At that time, much online discussion revolved around the Dong Tam land dispute protests, which turned violent and resulted in the deaths of an activist and three police officers.

After the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic 654 people were ordered to appear at police stations across the country for questioning pertaining to Facebook posts about the coronavirus. All of those summoned were forced to delete content they had posted online, and 146 were fined, According to Amnesty International.

Vietnam, whose ruling Communist Party controls all media and tolerates no dissent, ranks 175th of 180 countries on the 2020 Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index.


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