Dozens of Vietnamese civil society organizations, human rights activists and journalists hit out at Facebook on Monday, telling CEO Mark Zuckerberg in an open letter that his company was doing communist Hanoi’s bidding by shuttering their accounts during a severe crackdown on dissent in the one-party state.
“We urge you to reconsider your company’s aggressive practices that could silence human rights activists and citizen journalists in Vietnam,” wrote dozens of NGOs, activists and journalists in a letter addressed to Zuckerberg on the eve of his scheduled appearance before U.S. lawmakers in Washington.
“We are a group of Vietnamese civil society members, human rights defenders, and independent media organizations affected by frequent account suspensions and content takedown,” read the letter.
Sixteen groups – including the pro-democracy group Viet Tan, the Free Journalists Club, New Horizon Media, Viet Labor Movement, Good News For The Poor, Catholic Youth, and Saigon Broadcasting Television Network – and about three dozen individuals wrote that they had enjoyed “fruitful” relations with Facebook when it came to addressing content removal and other issues.
“Since last year, however, the frequency of takedown has increased and Facebook’s assistance has been unhelpful in restoring accounts and content,” said the letter.
The issue came to a head on April 5, when judicial authorities in Hanoi handed down harsh jail sentences to six Vietnamese activists found guilty of “subversion,” giving the activists a combined 66 years in jail and 17 years under house arrest.
Facebook’s takedown policies meant “many accounts and pages of high-profile citizen journalists were prevented from posting” before, during and after the closely watched trial, the letter said.
“The takedowns and account suspensions have happened without the affected users being told the reasons for the violation or the specific content that is in violation,” the activists wrote.
“We find this lack of transparency concerning and unhelpful,” they added.
The activists pointed to an April 2017 meeting between Facebook’s Head of Global Policy Management Monika Bickert and Vietnamese Minister of Information and Communications Truong Minh Tuan, which reportedly produced an agreement to coordinate in the monitoring and removal of content.
“It would appear that after this high profile agreement to coordinate with a government that is known for suppressing expression online and jailing activists, the problem of account suspension and content takedown has only grown more acute,” it said.
A Reuters news agency account of that meeting a year ago carried a statement from a statement from the Vietnamese government’s website that said:“Facebook will set up a separate channel to directly coordinate with Vietnam’s communication and information ministry to prioritize requests from the ministry and other competent authorities in the country."
The Vietnamese government has been trying to block the service since 2009, and Hanoi runs a cyber army of 10,000 called Force 47 to spread disinformation and silence critics, the activists said.
“These state-sponsored trolls … have deftly exploited Facebook’s community policies and purposefully disseminated patently fake news,” wrote the activists.
“There are online groups of government trolls coordinating mass reporting of activist accounts and celebrating their accomplishments when accounts and pages are taken down by Facebook,” they added.
“While we applaud Facebook’s efforts to fight disinformation in open societies, your efforts are carried out with such a broad brush that it is hurting communities in closed and closing spaces, such as Vietnam,” they wrote.
There was no immediate reaction from Facebook or from Zuckerberg, who is slated to appear before a joint session of the Senate Commerce and Judiciary Committees on Tuesday, and the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday.
In Zuckerberg’s prepared testimony to the Energy and Commerce Committee, released on Monday and published by the Washington Post, he did not address the takedown policies that were the focus of the Vietnamese activists’ complaints, but acknowledged Facebook had focused on connecting people without consideration of the downsides of the powerful platform.
“But it’s clear now that we didn’t do enough to prevent these tools from being used for harm as well. That goes for fake news, foreign interference in elections, and hate speech, as well as developers and data privacy,” he said.
“We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake,” added Zuckerberg.
“So now we have to go through every part of our relationship with people and make sure we’re taking a broad enough view of our responsibility,” said the Facebook founder.