Criticized by Activists, Facebook Denies Favoring Vietnam Government in Content Policies

The US social media giant says it will work with and protect civil society.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg prepares to testify at a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee joint hearing in Washington, DC, April 10, 2018.

Facebook on Tuesday rebutted criticism from Vietnamese activists and journalists that the social media giant favored Hanoi's communist government in its content removal practices, and vowed to work with and protect civil society in the country.

Facebook told RFA's Vietnamese Service that it took those complaints seriously and wanted to get a better understanding of concerns raised Monday in an open letter to CEO Mark Zuckerberg from dozens of Vietnamese civil society organizations, human rights activists and journalists.

The Vietnamese organizations and individuals told Zuckerberg that Facebook's "frequent account suspensions and content takedown" was doing Hanoi’s bidding by shuttering their accounts during a severe crackdown on dissent in the one-party state.

The activists further said that a group of Vietnamese "state-sponsored trolls" amplified the effect of government censorship when Facebook acted on requests to remove content, and that the company was not transparent in explaining why accounts were suspended or posts were removed.

“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.

In response to the letter,  a Facebook spokesperson told RFA the company was "committed to protecting the rights of the people who use Facebook, and to enabling people to express themselves freely and safely" while upholding content rules it refers to as "Community Standards."

"We will remove content that violates these standards when we're made aware of it. There are also times when we may have to remove or restrict access to content because it violates a law in a particular country, even though it doesn’t violate our Community Standards," the spokesperson said in an e-mailed comment.

Addressing the activists' assertions about Facebook's relationship with Vietnam's government and transparency questions, the spokesman said: "We have a clear and consistent government request process, which is no different in Vietnam to the rest of the world, and we report the number of pieces of content we restrict for contravening local law in our Transparency Report.”

Monday's letter to a letter addressed to Zuckerberg, on the eve of his scheduled appearance before U.S. lawmakers in Washington, was signed by 16 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 some three dozen individuals.

The groups wrote that they had a "fruitful" working relationship with Facebook until 2017, and they speculated that the U.S. company had begun working more closely with Hanoi after an April 2017 meeting between a Facebook executive and Vietnam's information minister, which reportedly produced an agreement to coordinate in the monitoring and removal of content.

But Facebook said the meeting did not change its government request process or content policies and that the firm challenges requests it deems to be unreasonable or too broad. Content treated as illegal in a country might be removed in that country alone, but remain on Facebook, it added.

Reacting to Facebook's response, Duy Hoang, a spokesman for Viet Tan, told RFA: "Facebook’s official response confirms the fears of many Vietnamese activists."

"Facebook is saying that they do remove content at the request of the Hanoi government. This is content that does not violate the community standards. Also, we can infer that when content is taken down, the author doesn’t know the specific reason, as Facebook doesn’t publicize which content was removed because of government censorship requests," said Hoang.

'Morally wrong and terrible for their brand'

But the spokesman added that the response to the open letter shows that "Facebook clearly knows that censorship is morally wrong and terrible for their brand."

"We activists have an opportunity to help Facebook live up to their corporate social responsibility and their own stated mission of an open and connected world," he said.

Hanoi-based activist La Viet Dung told RFA his fellow activists have struggled with account suspensions for what they believe are unclear reasons.

"Most of those whose accounts blocked are the result of reports from the community of opinion-shapers or ‘Force 47’," said La, referring to a notorious Vietnamese government-sponsored cyber army, set up to help the government censor unflattering reports about the country.

"They are so quick in blocking. In my opinion, the blocking mechanism seems to favor the Vietnamese government without considering giving assistance to independent voices,” he told RFA.

"I myself, as well as others who post critical status updates, do not know why our posts are taken down or accounts are blocked for a while before being restored.  Much information and photos cannot be posted," said Vietnamese lawyer Vo An Don, who signed Monday's open letter.

Vo lost his ability to practice law in Vietnam over personal opinions he shared on social media.

“Facebook needs to know that respecting and creating favorable conditions for independent voices is more important than supporting an authoritarian regime. Because when Facebook helps the independent voices, society will be changed for the better, and then more users will take to Facebook," said activist La.

Vietnam, with a population of 92 million people, of which 55 million are estimated to be users of Facebook, has been consistently rated "not free" in the areas of internet and press freedom by Freedom House, a U.S.-based watchdog group.

Reported by RFA's Vietnamese Service. Translated by An Nguyen. Written in English by Paul Eckert.