Severe restrictions on internet freedom continued in Vietnam, as the available online space for dissent and activism tightened further. Despite widespread protests, the enactment of a draconian cybersecurity law led to more restrictions on the internet by giving the government greater surveillance and censorship powers. Additionally, long criminal sentences for online expression, suspensions of online newspapers, at least one enforced disappearance, and a record number of content removals have further constrained internet freedom.
Vietnam is a one-party state, dominated for decades by the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV). Although some independent candidates are technically allowed to run in legislative elections, most are banned in practice. Freedom of expression, religious freedom, and civil society activism are tightly restricted.
June 1, 2018 – May 31, 2019
A new cybersecurity law, which provides sweeping power to authorities to censor internet content and obtain user data, went into effect in January 2019, further constraining the rights of internet users (see B3, C2, and C6).
In October 2018, an appeals court in Hanoi rejected the appeal of human rights defender and environmentalist Lê Đình Lu’ợng, upholding his 20-year prison sentence, one of the harshest imposed on an online activist in recent years, for “conducting activities aiming to overthrow the people’s administration.” Similarly, a number of online journalists and activists received lengthy prison sentences during the reporting period (see C3).
Between July and December 2018, over 1,500 pieces of content were removed by Facebook at the request of the government, tripling the amount from the previous six months. Content from activists, civil society organizations, and ordinary users alike was removed (see B2).
During the reporting period, two online publications—the online version of the newspaper Tuổi Trẻ and the Consumer—were fined and suspended for three months in retaliation for publishing content critical of the government (see B2 and B6).
In October 2018, authorities announced that the government had established a new national unit to monitor social media and other web content. Authorities assert that the center is equipped with software that can analyze, evaluate, and categorize millions of posts (see C5).
A Obstacles to Access
The cost of internet access has continued to decrease. During the coverage period, there was no deliberate disruption to internet or mobile networks. State- and military-owned companies dominate the telecommunications market.
|Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections?||46|
Internet penetration rates increased to 57 percent by the end of 2018, according to Statista.1 Mobile broadband has played a significant role in increasing access to faster internet service. One source estimated smartphone penetration at 38 percent in 2018.2 Fixed broadband remains a relatively small market segment.
In the first quarter of 2017, VinaPhone became the first provider to roll out a 4G network in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and 11 other provinces.3 In 2019, it expected to cover 95 percent of the total population with its 4G signal.4 In April 2019, the operator Viettel began the first pilot for a 5G network.5
Disruptions to the Asia-America Gateway in January, May, and June 2018 affected all internet service providers (ISPs) and disrupted service. The gateway is pivotal for connectivity to the international internet.
- 1. “Internet penetration in selected Asian countries as of June 2019, by country,” Statista, June 2019, https://www.statista.com/statistics/281668/internet-penetration-in-sout…; “Internet user penetration in Vietnam from 2017 to 2023,” Statista, 2019, https://www.statista.com/statistics/975063/internet-penetration-rate-in….
- 2. “Mobile phone Internet penetration rate in Vietnam from 2017 to 2023,” Statista 2019, https://www.statista.com/statistics/974957/vietnam-mobile-phone-interne…; ”Smartphone penetration rate as share of the population in Vietnam from 2017 to 2023*,” Statista, 2019, https://www.statista.com/statistics/625458/smartphone-user-penetration-….
- 3. “Cuộc đua 3G đang nóng tại Việtnam,” [The 3G race is heating up in Vietnam,] Zing, March 21, 2017, http://news.zing.vn/cuoc-dua-4g-dang-nong-tai-viet-nam-post730022.html.
- 4. “VNPT đẩy mạnh phủ sóng 4G theo nhu cầu thị trường,” [VNPT increases 4G coverage following market demand,] Vinaphone, 2019, https://tongdaivinaphone.vn/nam-2019-vnpt-day-manh-vung-phu-song-4g-the….
- 5. “Sóng di động 5G đã có tại Việt Nam,” [5G mobile signal piloted in Vietnam,] VietnamNet, April 26, 2019, https://vietnamnet.vn/vn/cong-nghe/vien-thong/song-di-dong-5g-da-co-tai….
|Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons?||23|
Access to the internet has become more affordable for most segments of the population, including those in rural areas, but connectivity remains out of reach for those living in extreme poverty. A sample monthly mobile data plan cost around $8 in 2019, while the average monthly income was $500.1
- 1. “Các gói cước 3G Vinaphone trọn gói không giới hạn dung lượng 2019,” [3G Vinaphone packages with unlimited capacity in 2019,] Vinaphone, August 28, 2019, http://3gvinaphone.vn/cac-goi-cuoc-3g-vinaphone-khong-gioi-han-luu-luon…; “GDP per capita, PPP (current international $),” World Bank, International Comparison Program Database, accessed 2019, http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.PP.CD.
|Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity?||46|
There were no deliberate disruptions to internet or mobile networks during the coverage period, although authorities have sometimes employed periodic throttling or restricted access to the internet for political or security reasons.
The most recent connectivity restriction was in 2017, when 3G access and a phone signal were unavailable for several hours in Dong Tam commune, Hanoi, where villagers held 30 police officials and district government officials hostage for several days in a violent conflict over land.1
The government retains the ability to restrict connectivity because of its technical control over infrastructure. While several companies have licenses to build infrastructure, the state-owned Vietnam Posts and Telecommunications Group (VNPT) and the military-owned Viettel dominate the country's telecommunications sector. Three out of four providers servicing internet exchange points (IXPs), which allocate bandwidth to service providers, are state- or military-owned (VNPT, Viettel, and SPT).2
- 1. Personal accounts from activists reporting on the outskirts of Hanoi, 2017; “Vụ Đồng Tâm có thêm diễn biễn phức tạp,” [Complications in the Dong Tam case,] BBC Vietnamese, April 20, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/vietnamese/vietnam-39646209.
- 2. Website of the Ministry of Information and Communication of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, http://english.mic.gov.vn/Pages/home.aspx.
|Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers?||26|
Though any firm is allowed to operate as an ISP, informal barriers prevent new companies without political ties or economic clout from disrupting the market. The three largest ISPs are VNPT, which controls 46.1 percent of the market; Viettel (26.1 percent); and the private FPT (18.6 percent).1
In the mobile sector, Viettel commands 50.6 percent of mobile subscriptions; VinaPhone and MobiFone rank second and third with 24.8 percent and 20.2 percent, respectively. Smaller companies that lack the infrastructure to provide quality service and coverage, like Vietnamobile and Gmobile, struggle to compete.2
- 1. “Internet cáp quang của VNPT,” [VNPT’s fiber cable service,] Phap Luat Vietnam, July 11, 2018, https://www.phapluatplus.vn/game--cong-nghe/internet-cap-quang-cua-vnpt….
- 2. “Sự nghiệt ngã của thị trường viễn thông,” [The brutality of the telecom market,] Saigon Giai Phong, March 12, 2019, http://www.sggp.org.vn/su-nghiet-nga-cua-thi-truong-vien-thong-580595.h….
|Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner?||04|
Various government agencies regulate and oversee digital technology in an ad hoc, nontransparent manner, without public consultation. Guidelines for regulating the telecommunications sector are provided by the CPV, compromising the independence of regulatory bodies.
The Vietnam Internet Network Information Center (VNNIC), an affiliate of the Ministry of Information and Communications (MIC), is responsible for managing, allocating, supervising, and promoting the use of internet domain names, IP addresses, and autonomous system numbers. Three ministries—the MIC, the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), and the Ministry of Culture, Sport, and Tourism (MCST)—manage the provision and usage of internet services. Nominally, the MCST regulates sexually explicit and violent content, while the MPS oversees political censorship. In practice, censorship of online content could be ordered by any government body.
B Limits on Content
Critical websites remain censored, while authorities increasingly compelled Facebook and Google to remove internet content deemed critical of the state. Even living abroad have had their content removed from online platforms, with many activists’ Facebook accounts suspended due to alleged violations of the platform’s community standards.
|Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content?||26|
With fewer resources devoted to online content control than China, the Vietnamese authorities have nevertheless established an effective content-filtering system. While social media and communications apps are periodically blocked, they were otherwise available during the coverage period.
Censorship frequently targets high-profile blogs or websites with many followers, as well as content considered threatening to the rule of the CPV, including political dissent, advocacy for human rights and democracy, and criticism of the government’s reaction to border and maritime disputes with China. Content promoting organized religions such as Buddhism, Roman Catholicism, and the Cao Dai group, which the state considers a potential threat, is blocked to a lesser but still significant degree. Websites critical of the government are generally inaccessible, such as Talawas, Dan Luan, Luat Khoa, Dan Lam Bao, Dien Dan Xa Hoi Dan Su, and Bauxite Vietnam. Access to international sites such as Human Rights Watch, Radio Free Asia’s Vietnamese-language site, and Vietnamese BBC, has been unstable and unpredictable.
Access to Facebook and Instagram was last interrupted in 2016, during protests in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City against an environmental disaster caused by a steel plant owned by Formosa, a Taiwanese company. Demonstrators criticized Formosa for discharging toxic chemicals that led to millions of fish washing up dead along the central coast, and the government for failing to adequately respond to the crisis. The mainstream media failed to cover the rallies, which increased Facebook’s importance as a means of sharing information and organizing public events (see B8). Operators of at least three tools used to circumvent blocking reported a dramatic spike in the number of Vietnamese users on the day social media platforms reportedly became inaccessible; the platforms had likely been blocked.1 Some mobile users also reported that they were unable to send SMS messages about the rallies.
|Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content?||04|
The regular removal of content has led users to employ the common practice of sharing screenshots of online articles that they think are likely to be removed later, rather than sharing their links. More content was removed during the coverage period than ever before, and the government is using the newly enacted cybersecurity law to pressure social media companies to comply with content removal requests.1
Authorities have also imposed heavy fines and suspended online publications due to critical comments on their platforms. In July 2018, the online publication of Tuổi Trẻ, one of Vietnam’s most prestigious newspapers, was forced to close down for three months, in addition to receiving a fine of 220 million Vietnamese dong ($9,300), for a reader’s comment that was seen as damaging to the “great national solidarity,” and for an article that the authorities claimed was false and divisive.2 The comment and article were removed before the site was reinstated.
Between July and December 2018, over 1,500 pieces of content were removed by Facebook at the request of the government, tripling the amount from the previous six months. Facebook reported removal requests from both the MIC and the MPS, for alleged antistate content, false information, defamation of authorities, and defamation related to commercial products.3 The government has also requested that Facebook remove the content of critical civil society groups. The democracy organization Viet Tan, for example, had at least seven posts removed in May 2019 for “local legal restrictions.”4 Posts relating to the health of President Nguyễn Phú Trọng on the group’s Facebook page were unavailable to local users beginning in April 2019.5 During the previous coverage period in early 2018, the MIC had worked with Facebook to remove 670 accounts it condemned as “spreading reactionary, anti-Party, antistate information, defaming Vietnamese leaders and the state,” with the ultimate goal of removing 5,000 accounts.6
Activists, including those living outside of Vietnam, have increasingly had their Facebook accounts suspended for violating the platform’s community standards.7 In November 2018, Berlin-based journalist Khoa Trung Le, who manages the online outlet Thoibao.de, had his account suspended shortly after he posted about an upcoming interview with Vietnamese blogger and democracy activist Nguyen Van Dai. Upon appealing the case to Facebook, Khoa Trung Le discovered that someone had made his account an administrator of a page sharing objectionable content. As many as 23 similar incidents were discovered by the end of the reporting period, including a Berlin-based Vietnamese blogger whose account has repeatedly been banned.8
Google has been praised by the minister of information and communications for being “collaborative.” The company complied with a request by the MIC issued in January 2019 to remove “toxic” content, taking down over 5,000 YouTube videos that authorities claimed “slandered and defamed” the country’s leaders.9
Other entities with financial and political influence may exert control over online content or discourage free expression. In 2016, online reports of an animal welfare crisis at a safari park on Phu Quoc island in southern Vietnam operated by Vingroup, one of the country’s largest conglomerates, led to a Facebook campaign questioning the importation and treatment of wild animals. Shortly thereafter, Facebook temporarily deactivated the accounts of users who had previously discussed the issue, and a post by a Facebook page administrator asserted that they must cease posting about the case “for security reasons,” according to the BBC Vietnamese service, leading observers to believe that users could face reprisals from Vingroup or its supporters.10 Vingroup denied reports that thousands of animals had died at the park and that workers had quit in protest.11 In 2017, influential Facebook posts and online radio interviews about the real estate projects of Vingroup and other conglomerates were also removed.
Intermediary liability was formalized in 2013 with Decree 72 on the Management, Provision, Use of Internet Services and Internet Content Online. It requires intermediaries—including those based overseas—to regulate third-party contributors in cooperation with the state, and to “eliminate or prevent information” that opposes the republic, threatens national security and the social order, or defies national traditions, among other broadly worded provisions. The decree holds cybercafé owners responsible if their customers are caught surfing “bad” websites. The regulation process was articulated in Circular 09/2014/TT-BTTTT, issued in 2014, which requires website owners to eliminate “incorrect” content “within three hours” of its detection or receipt of a request from a competent authority in the form of an email, text message, or phone call.
- 1. Khank Vu, “Vietnam says Facebook violates controversial cybersecurity law”, Reuters, January 9, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-vietnam-facebook-idUSKCN1P30AJ.
- 2. “Major online newspaper suspended for three months in Vietnam,” VNE Express International, July 17, 2018, https://bit.ly/2NlAaDK.
- 3. “Vietnam,” Facebook Transparency Report, 2018, https://transparency.facebook.com/content-restrictions/country/VN.
- 4. Adrian Shahbaz, “Why Social Media Are Still Worth Saving,” Freedom House, June 2019, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-media/freedom-media-2019#media-….
- 5. Access Now et al., Open Letter to Facebook on World Press Freedom Day 2019: Don’t Give in to Censorship in Vietnam, May 3, 2019, https://viettan.org/en/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2019/05/Open-Letter-t….
- 6. “Facebook xây dựng kênh riêng xử lý, ngăn chặn thông tin vi phạm pháp luật Việt Nam,” VTC News, 11 January 2018, https://vtc.vn/facebook-xay-dung-kenh-rieng-xu-ly-ngan-chan-thong-tin-v….
- 7. “Vietnam: How Facebook is being abused to silence critics in Germany,” Reporters Without Borders, December 21, 2018, https://rsf.org/en/news/vietnam-how-facebook-being-abused-silence-criti….
- 8. “New Facebook phishing attack taking Vietnamese opposition voices offline,” Access Now, October 22, 2018, https://www.accessnow.org/vietnam-facebook-phishing-attack-take-opposit…; Keith Walker, “Facebook accused of silencing critical Vietnamese bloggers,” Deutsche Welle, December 15, 2018, https://www.dw.com/en/facebook-accused-of-silencing-critical-vietnamese….
- 9. Ngan Anh, “Vietnam unhappy with how Facebook handles requests to remove 'toxic' content”, VNE Express, November 18, 2017, https://e.vnexpress.net/news/news/vietnam-unhappy-with-how-facebook-han….
- 10. “Safari Phú Quốc ‘chưa nhập tê giác,’” [Phu Quoc Safari “not imported rhinos yet,”] BBC Vietnamese, February 27, 2016, http://bbc.in/1Tkwnaw. “Safari Phú Quốc ‘nên minh bạch’,” [Phu Quoc Safari ‘should be transparent,”] BBC Vietnamese, February 26, 2016, http://bbc.in/1LL7koS.
- 11. “Reports of mass animal deaths at Vietnam safari zoo are false: authorities,” Tuoi Tre News, February 24, 2016, http://tuoitrenews.vn/society/33384/reports-of-mass-animal-deaths-at-vi….
|Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process?||04|
The The MIC, the Central Propaganda Committee, and various other authorities regularly instruct online outlets to remove content they perceive as problematic, through nontransparent, often verbal orders. These requests often have no legal footing, and are therefore not proportional to the alleged “harm” the government deems the content creates. Even if a content removal request is delivered through official channels, there is no appeals process, independent or not.
The cybersecurity law, which went into effect in January 2019, requires social media companies to remove content upon request from the authorities within one day (see C2 and C6).1 Any content the government deems “toxic” or offensive is subject to removal under the law.2 However, by the end of the coverage period, there was still no decree guiding the law’s implementation nor evidence that it had been used.
In general, censorship is carried out by ISPs, rather than at the backbone or international gateway level. Specific URLs are generally identified for censorship and placed on blacklists. ISPs use different techniques to inform customers of their compliance with blocking orders. While some notify users when an inaccessible site has been deliberately blocked, others post an apparently benign error message.
- 1. Baker McKenzie, “New Draft Cybersecurity Law 2017,” Lexology, July 31, 2017, https://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=b3fd124e-e230-4859-84a4-….
- 2. Ashely Westerman, “To The Dismay Of Free Speech Advocates, Vietnam Rolls Out Controversial Cyber Law,” National Public Radio, January 1, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/01/01/681373274/to-the-dismay-of-free-speech-a….
|Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship?||14|
Economic and social penalties, in addition to the risk of criminal prosecution, lead to a high degree of self-censorship online. The unpredictable and nontransparent ways in which topics become prohibited make it difficult for users to know what areas might be off-limits, and bloggers and forum administrators routinely disable commenting functions to prevent controversial discussions. A number of draconian laws and decrees have a chilling effect on the online speech of activists, journalists, and ordinary users (see B6 and C2). The vague clauses of the newly implemented cybersecurity law, for example, have compelled online journalists to exercise even greater caution while posting or commenting online.
|Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest?||04|
The government exercises a high degree of control over content published online. All content produced by newspapers and online news outlets must pass through in-house censorship before publication. In weekly meetings, detailed instructions handed out by a CPV committee to editors dictate areas and themes to report on or suppress, as well as the allowed depth of coverage.
The government also actively seeks to manipulate public opinion online. At the end of 2017, General Nguyen Trong Nghia, at the CPV’s national conference on propaganda, introduced Force 47, a new military unit with over 10,000 staff, “well qualified and loyal to the revolution,” whose task is to fight “wrong, distorting opinions” online. Critics contend that Force 47’s main objective is to spread smear campaigns aimed at opponents of the government.1 In 2013, Hanoi's head of propaganda, Ho Quang Loi, revealed that the city has a 900-person team of "internet polemicists" or "public opinion shapers" who are tasked with spreading the party line.2
- 1. “Hơn 10.000 người trong 'Lực lượng 47' đấu tranh trên mạng,” Tuoitre Online, December 25, 2017, https://tuoitre.vn/hon-10-000-nguoi-trong-luc-luong-47-dau-tranh-tren-m….
- 2. “Vietnam's propaganda agents battle bloggers online,” Bangkok Post, January 19, 2013, https://www.bangkokpost.com/world/331539/vietnam-propaganda-agents-batt….
|Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online?||03|
Constraints on advertising place an economic strain on online outlets, and stringent government regulations severely limit users’ ability to publish content online. In a corrupt environment, informal connections to high-ranking government officials or powerful companies offer economic and political protection to online media outlets and service providers. Media outlets are careful not to be seen as associated with antigovernment funders or advertisers. Likewise, advertisers avoid online outlets critical of the CPV and the government.
The government’s 2017 move to pressure international social media platforms to remove “toxic” content impacted online advertising. The Vietnam branches of several multinational companies withdrew advertising from popular social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube at the request of Vietnamese government ministries.1 Vietnamese companies also pulled advertising after government representatives said that ads appeared next to content violating local laws, including some uploaded by dissidents who criticized the government.2
Circular 09/2014/TT-BTTTT, issued in 2014, tightened procedures for registering and licensing new social media sites (see B3). Among other requirements, the person responsible for the platform must have at least a university degree.
Online outlets and ordinary users can be subjected to fines and suspended based on content they post (see B2). Decree 174, effective since 2014, introduced administrative fines of up to 100 million Vietnamese dong ($4,700) for anyone who “criticizes the government, the party, or national heroes” or “spreads propaganda and reactionary ideology against the state” on social media. These fines can be applied for offenses not serious enough to merit criminal prosecution. The decree outlined additional fines for violations related to online commerce.
In February 2019, for example, the online publication known as the Consumer was forced to close down for three months and pay a fine of 65 million Vietnamese dong ($2,800) for an article critical of high-ranking leaders of Ho Chi Minh City, which authorities claimed was spreading misinformation.3 In July 2018, the online version of the newspaper Tuổi Trẻ was also suspended for three months and forced to remove critical comments (see B2).
- 1. Michael Peel, “Vietnam targets multinationals in social media censorship drive,” Financial Times, March 17, 2017, https://www.ft.com/content/853db6f2-0ae1-11e7-97d1-5e720a26771b.
- 2. Ma Nguyen, “Vietnam leverages Google, YouTube hate speech failings,” Asia Times, March 27, 2017, https://www.asiatimes.com/2017/03/article/vietnam-leverages-google-yout….
- 3. “Báo lại bị phạt vì đụng đến lãnh đạo,” [Newspaper fined again for criticising leaders,] RFA, Feb 26, 2019, https://www.rfa.org/vietnamese/in_depth/newspapers-punished-again-02262….
|Does the online information landscape lack diversity?||14|
Internet content producers face a range of pressures that affect the quality and diversity of online information, including the in-house censorship process imposed upon newspapers and online news outlets (see B5). Further, disinformation from both progovernment and antigovernment actors has increasingly distorted the online space, limiting the diversity of content and the democratic potential of social media.
Although government-run outlets continue to dominate, new domestic online outlets and social media platforms are expanding the media landscape. Young, educated Vietnamese people are increasingly turning to blogs, social media platforms, and other online news sources for information, rather than state television and radio broadcasters.1 Tools for circumventing censorship are well known among younger, tech-savvy internet users in Vietnam, and many can be found with a simple Google search.2
- 1. Paul Rothman, “Media Use in Vietnam: Findings from BBG and GALLUP,” Cima, June 10, 2015, http://www.cima.ned.org/blog/media-use-vietnam/.
- 2. The Sec Dev Foundation, Circum-what? Circumvention Widely Employed, Poorly Understood in Vietnam, January 29, 2016, secdev-foundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Circum-What.pdf.
|Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues?||36|
Activists continued to use digital tools to mobilize during the coverage period, despite some restrictions and hostility from the government. Some activists have tens of thousands of followers on their social media platforms, even in the face of intensifying government pressure (see B2 and C3).1 For example, Pham Doan Trang, a leading dissident and recipient of 2018 Homo Homini Prize for democracy and human rights defenders, had 58,000 followers on her Facebook page as of August 2019. Her blog receives nearly 20,000 visitors per day.2
Digital mobilization in Vietnam tends to be local, rather than national, in scale, and often revolves around environmental issues, as well as concerns about the expansion of China’s influence. In January 2019, a group of environmentalists created the Facebook page Save Tam Dao to protest a project by the real estate developer Sun Group in the Tam Dao National Park. The page received thousands of likes and followers within a few weeks.3 In late 2017, online protests flared following reports that FLC, a large Vietnamese corporation, had been conducting a feasibility study for a cable car project in Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.4
In June 2018, protests broke out across the country against two proposed laws: the cybersecurity bill (see C2 and C6) and a bill that aims to allow foreign investors to lease land in special economic zones for up to 99 years. Critics fear the latter bill will enable further Chinese encroachment on Vietnam’s territory. Social media platforms including Facebook and Twitter were used to organize the demonstrations.5 Social media platforms have also helped activists document police abuses.6
- 1. Matthew Tostevin, “Vietnam's Facebook dissidents test the limits of Communist state,” Reuters, August 29, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-vietnam-internet/vietnams-facebook-d….
- 2. “The Homo Homini Prize for 2017 will be awarded to a persecuted Vietnamese Blogger,” PEOPLE IN NEED, February 2, 2018”, https://www.clovekvtisni.cz/en/what-we-do/human-rights-support/vietnam/….
- 3. “#SaveTamDao: A Cry for Help from Vietnam’s Primary Rainforest,” The Vietnamese, January 22, 2019, https://www.thevietnamese.org/2019/01/savetamdao-a-cry-for-help-from-vi….
- 4. “C t treo Sơn Đo eo ảnh hướng thế nnh tới thiii nhiii?” RFA, February 1, 2018, https://www.rfa.org/vietnamese/in_depth/how-cable-car-system-in-son-doo….
- 5. “Protests Spread in Vietnam Over Proposed New Laws,” VOA Learning English, June 20, 2018, https://learningenglish.voanews.com/a/spread-of-protests-shows-anger-in….
- 6. “Vietnam police halt protests against new economic zones,” Reuters, June 10, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-vietnam-protests/vietnam-police-halt….
C Violations of User Rights
The government’s severe crackdown on online speech continued into 2019, with at least 42 bloggers and activists convicted. Human rights defender and environmentalist Le Dinh Luong was given a record-long prison sentence of 20 years, only months after the 14-year sentence handed to blogger Hoang Duc Binh for his criticism of the Formosa environmental disaster. In addition to increased criminal prosecutions, the new cybersecurity law dramatically increased authorities’ ability to access user data.
|Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence?||06|
The constitution, amended in 2013, affirms the right to freedom of expression, but in practice the CPV has strict control over the media. The judiciary is not independent, and trials related to free expression are often brief, and apparently predetermined. Police routinely flout due process, arresting bloggers and online activists without a warrant or retaining them in custody beyond the maximum period allowed by law. A new cybersecurity law passed in June 2018 also imposes sweeping restrictions on freedom of expression online (see B3, C2, and C6).1
Since 2008, a series of regulations have extended controls on traditional media content to the online sphere. Decree 97, passed in 2008, ordered blogs to refrain from political or social commentary and barred them from disseminating press articles, literary works, or other publications prohibited by the Press Law. In 2011, Decree 2 gave authorities power to penalize journalists and bloggers for a number of infractions, including publishing under a pseudonym.2 Decree 72 on the Management, Provision, Use of Internet Services and Internet Content Online replaced Decree 97 in 2013, expanding regulation from blogs to all social media networks. Article 5 of the decree prohibits online activity found to be “opposing the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” inciting violence, revealing state secrets, and providing false information, among other broad provisions that restrict freedom of expression online.
- 1. Baker McKenzie, “New Draft Cybersecurity Law 2017,” Lexology, July 31, 2017, https://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=b3fd124e-e230-4859-84a4-….
- 2. OpenNet Initiative, Vietnam, Country Profile, August 7, 2012, https://opennet.net/research/profiles/vietnam; The Ministry of Information and Communication, Decree No 97/2008/ND-CP of August 28, 2008, Official Gazette, August 11-12, 2008, http://bit.ly/1j9Ejf5; Ministry of Information and Communications, Circular No. 07/2008/TT-BTTTT of December 18, 2008, Official Gazette, January 6-7, 2009, https://cpj.org/Vietnam%20media%20decree.pdf; Article 19, Comment on the Decree No. 02 of 2011 on Administrative Responsibility for Press and Publication Activities of the Prime Minister of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, June 2011, https://www.article19.org/data/files/pdfs/analysis/comment-on-the-decre…; Decree 02/2011/ND-CP, [in Vietnamese,] January 6, 2011, available at Committee to Protect Journalists, http://cpj.org/Vietnam%20media%20decree.pdf.
|Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities?||04|
Legislation, including internet-related decrees, the penal code, the Publishing Law, the cybersecurity law, and the State Secrets Protection Ordinance, can be used to fine and imprison journalists and netizens.
The cybersecurity law, which went into effect in January 2019, prohibits a wide range of activities conducted online, including: organizing opposition to the CPV; distorting Vietnam’s revolutionary history and achievements; spreading false information; and harming socioeconomic activities.1 In addition, websites and individual social media pages are prohibited from posting content critical of the state or that causes public disorder (see B3).
In January 2018, amendments to the 2015 Penal Code took effect. Under the amended law, articles 109, 117, and 330 of the penal code are commonly used to prosecute and imprison bloggers and online activists for subversion, antistate propaganda, and abusing democratic freedoms.2 The amendments also contain vaguely worded provisions that criminalize those preparing to commit crimes with penalties of one to five years in prison, meaning that a person can be sentenced to five years in prison for preparing to criticize the state online. The new law also holds lawyers criminally responsible for failure to report clients to the authorities for a number of crimes, including illegal online activities, effectively making attorneys agents of the state.3
- 1. “Vietnam’s New Cybersecurity Law 2018,” Vietnam Business Law, July 30, 2018, https://vietnam-business-law.info/blog/2018/7/30/vietnams-new-cybersecu….
- 2. These articles penalize “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration” (Article 109); “making, storing, disseminating or propagandizing materials and products that aim to oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” (Article 117); and “abuse of democratic rights to infringe upon the interests of the State, the legitimate rights and interests of organizations and citizens,” (article 330); See: “Vietnam’s Proposed Revisions to National Security Laws,” Human Rights Watch, November 19, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/11/19/vietnams-proposed-revisions-nationa….
- 3. “Vietnam: New Law Threatens Right to a Defense”, Human Right Watch, 21 Jun, 2017, https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/06/21/vietnam-new-law-threatens-right-def….
|Are individuals penalized for online activities?||06|
Vietnam continues to experience a substantial crackdown against online speech. Prosecutions for online activities were common during the coverage period, and some bloggers and human rights defenders received lengthy prison sentences. In 2018, at least 42 rights activists and bloggers were convicted under a range of draconian laws.1
Several individuals were handed severe prison sentences in the past year. In October 2018, an appeals court in Hanoi rejected the appeal of human rights defender and environmentalist Lê Đình Lu’ợng, upholding his 20-year prison sentence, one of the harshest imposed on an online activist in recent years, for “conducting activities aiming to overthrow the people’s administration,” outlined in article 79 of the 1999 penal code. The lower court convicted him after a one-day trial.2 The conviction was in part based on Le Dinh Luong’s Facebook posts criticizing the government.3In another example, Nguyen Trung Truc, co-founder of the association Brotherhood for Democracy, which has an online presence, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for allegedly trying to overthrow the state.4
In February 2018, during the previous coverage period, Hoang Duc Binh was given a 14-year prison sentence for “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state.” In 2017, he livestreamed a march against Formosa, which was responsible for an environmental disaster in 2016.5
After the coverage period in June 2019, Nguyen Ngoc Anh, a shrimp farming engineer and environmental activist, was sentenced to six years in prison for using Facebook to “make, store, disseminate or propagandise materials and products that aim to oppose the state of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.”6 The posts reportedly called for peaceful protest. He was originally arrested in September 2018.
In a rare positive development, in October 2018, the blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, commonly known as Mother Mushroom, was released from prison and sent into exile in the United States.7 She was originally sentenced in June 2017 to ten years in prison for her criticism of the government’s human rights record and treatment of suspects in police custody.8
- 1. “EU: Press Vietnam on Rights Record,” Human Rights Watch, March 4, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/03/04/eu-press-vietnam-rights-record.
- 2. “Vietnamese Court Upholds 20-year Imprisonment of Democracy Campaigner Le Dinh Luong in His Appeal,” Vietnam Human Rights Defenders, October 18, 2018, http://www.vietnamhumanrightsdefenders.net/2018/10/18/vietnamese-court-…; “Vietnam sentences activist to 20 years prison amid dissent crackdown,” Reuters, August 16, 2018, https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-vietnam-dissident/vietnam-sentences-a….
- 3. “Vietnamese blogger gets 20-year jail sentence,” Reporters Without Borders, August 16, 2018, https://rsf.org/en/news/vietnamese-blogger-gets-20-year-jail-sentence.
- 4. “Vietnam court jails activist for 12 years,” Reuters, September 13, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-vietnam-security-trials/vietnam-cour….
- 5. “Hoang Duc Binh,” Profile, The 88 Project for Free Speech in Vietnam, last updated: September 23, 2019, https://vietnamprisoners.info/prisoner/32/hoang-duc-binh.
- 6. “Vietnam blogger jailed for six years for Facebook posts calling for peaceful protests,” The Guardian, June 7, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jun/07/vietnam-blogger-jailed-fo….
- 7. “Mother Mushroom, Vietnamese Activist, Is Said to Be Released,” The New York Times, October 17, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/17/world/asia/vietnam-blogger-mother-mu….
- 8. Associated Press, “Vietnamese blogger jailed for 10 years for 'defaming' regime,” The Guardian, June 29, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jun/29/vietnamese-blogger-jailed….
|Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption?||14|
The 2018 cybersecurity law restricts anonymity online by requiring users to register for accounts on various social media platforms with their real names, and for technology companies to verify the identities of their users.1 There are no restrictions on encryption or the use of encryption tools, although some laws require that authorities be given decryption keys on request (see C6).
- 1. “Vietnamese blogger jailed for 10 years for 'defaming' regime,” The Guardian, June 29, 2017, http://www.vietnamhumanrightsdefenders.net/2017/11/08/vietnams-cybersec….
|Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy?||16|
Limited information is available about the surveillance technology used by Vietnamese authorities, but the legal framework, including the 2018 cybersecurity law, enables authorities to infringe on the privacy rights of citizens with relative ease.
In October 2018, authorities announced that the government had established a new national unit to monitor daily social media and other web content. Authorities assert that the center is equipped with software that can analyze, evaluate, and categorize millions of posts.1
According to FireEye, a California-based cybersecurity company, Vietnam has developed considerable cyberespionage capabilities in recent years. Since 2014, the company tracked at least 10 separate attacks from a group called OceanLotus, or APT32, with targets including overseas-based Vietnamese journalists and private- and public-sector organizations in Germany, China, the United States, the Philippines, Great Britain, and Vietnam itself. While there is no direct link between APT32 and the Vietnamese government, FireEye contended that the accessed personnel details and data from the targeted organizations were of “very little use to any party other than the Vietnamese government.”2
In 2013, Citizen Lab, a research group based in Canada, identified FinFisher software on servers in 25 countries, including Vietnam. Promoted by British distributor Gamma International as a suite for lawful intrusion and surveillance, FinFisher has the power to monitor communications and extract information from other computers without permission, including contacts, text messages, and emails. Citizen Lab noted that the presence of such a server does not indicate who is running it, though it is marketed to governments.
- 1. “Vietnam rolls out web monitor to control 'false information',” The Straits Times, November 1, 2018, https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/vietnam-rolls-out-web-monitor-to-cont…, “New push to constrain social media,” Vietname Right Now, November 8, 2018, http://vietnamrightnow.com/2018/11/new-push-to-constrain-social-media/.
- 2. Jon Russel, “Report: Hackers ‘aligned’ with Vietnam government attacked international firms and media,” Tech Crunch, May 15, 2017, https://techcrunch.com/2017/05/14/fireeye-vietnam-aligned-hackers/.
|Are service providers and other technology companies required to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users?||16|
Service providers and technology companies are required by law to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users in a number of circumstances. The new cybersecurity law, which went into effect in January 2019, dramatically increased the requirements for companies to aid the government in surveillance by introducing data retention and localization provisions. The law requires online platforms—including large entities such as Facebook and Google, as well as smaller platforms such as payment services and game companies—to store data on Vietnamese users locally and to provide that data to the government upon request.1 Data, including names, birth dates, nationality, identity cards, credit card numbers, biometrics files, and health records, must be stored for as long as a service operates within Vietnam. Additionally, content of communications and contact lists must also be stored for 36 months. Foreign companies that serve over 10,000 local customers are also required to have offices in Vietnam.2
Decree 72 requires providers such as social networks to “provide personal information of the users related to terrorism, crimes, and violations of law” to “competent authorities” on request, but lacks procedures and adequate oversight to discourage abuse. It also mandates that companies maintain at least one domestic server “serving the inspection, storage, and provision of information at the request of competent authorities,” and requires them to store certain data for a specified period (see B3). The decree gives users the ambiguous right to “have their personal information kept confidential in accordance with law.” Ministers, heads of ministerial agencies and government agencies, the provincial people’s committees, and “relevant organizations and individuals” can use the decree, leaving anonymous and private communications subject to intrusion by almost any authority in Vietnam. In mid-2016, “correspondence from the Saigon Post and Telecommunications Service Corporation” was the basis of Nguyen Dinh Ngoc’s indictment for disseminating antigovernment propaganda.3
The Law on Information Security, which introduced new cybersecurity measures, came into effect in 2016.4 Among its more troubling provisions, the law requires technology companies to share user data without their consent at the request of competent state agencies (Article 17.1.c), mandates that authorities be given decryption keys on request, and introduces licensing requirements for tools that offer encryption as a primary function, threatening anonymity.5
Certain websites are also required to retain and localize data. Under Circular 09/2014/TT-BTTTT, Vietnamese companies that operate general websites and social networks, including blogging platforms, are required to locate a server system in Vietnam and to store posted information for 90 days, and certain metadata for up to two years.6
Cybercafé owners are required to install software to track and store information about their clients’ online activities, and citizens must also provide ISPs with government-issued documents when purchasing a home internet connection.7 The regulation requiring prepaid mobile phone subscribers to provide their ID details to the operator is enforced consistently.8
- 1. “Vietnam: Big Brother Is Watching Everyone,” Human Rights Watch, December 20, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/12/20/vietnam-big-brother-watching-everyo….
- 2. Ralph Jennings, “Cybersecurity Law: Vietnam Will Censor Internet, Not Close Websites,” VOA News, December 28, 2018, https://www.voanews.com/a/cybersecurity-law-vietnam-will-censor-interne….
- 3. “Vietnam: 7 Convicted in One Week,” Human Rights Watch, April 4, 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/04/04/vietnam-7-convicted-one-week.
- 4. Tilleke and Gibbons, Legal Update: New Regulations in the ICT Sector in Vietnam, March 2016, http://www.tilleke.com/sites/default/files/2016_Mar_New_Regulations_ICT…; “New Law On Cyber Information Security And Its Impact On Data Privacy In Vietnam,” Rouse, March 30, 2016, http://www.rouse.com/magazine/news/new-law-on-cyber-information-securit….
- 5. Michael L. Gray, “The Trouble with Vietnam’s Cyber Security Law,” The Diplomat, October 21, 2016, http://thediplomat.com/2016/10/the-trouble-with-vietnams-cyber-security…; “Vietnamese Cyber Security Law Threatens Privacy Rights and Encryption,” Tiasang Vietnam, September 8, 2016, http://www.secdev-foundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/FN-TS-15-Vi….
- 6. Mong Palatino, “Corporate Critics Say Vietnam's New Tech Regulations Are Bad for Business,” Global Voice Advocacy, November 3, 2014, https://advox.globalvoices.org/2014/11/04/corporate-critics-say-vietnam….
- 7. “Internet Censorship tightening in Vietnam,” Asia News, June 22, 2010, http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Internet-censorship-tightening-in-Vietna….
- 8. “Nghị định 49/2017/NĐ-CP: Thắt chặt quản lý thuê bao di động trả trước, loại bỏ tình trạng sim rác, sim ảo,” Ministry of Information and Communications of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, May 9, 2017, https://mic.gov.vn/Pages/TinTuc/134363/Nghi-dinh-49-2017-Nd-CP--That-ch….
|Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in retribution for their online activities?||15|
Bloggers and online activists are subject to frequent physical attacks, job loss, severed internet access, travel restrictions, and other rights violations.
In January 2019, Truong Duy Nhat, a journalist and commentator who was jailed from 2013 to 2015 on charges of “conducting propaganda against the state,” disappeared in Thailand, after he submitted an asylum claim at the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office there. Truong Duy Nhat was reportedly abducted in Thailand and taken into custody in Vietnam, which authorities have denied. In June 2019, after the coverage period, authorities raided Truong Duy Nhat’s house and opened a criminal investigation for “misuse of power” during the time he worked for the newspaper Dai Doan Ket.1
Additionally, in August 2018, government officials and men in civilian clothes raided a concert in Ho Chi Minh City and severely beat Nguyen Tin, a singer and rights activist, and Pham Doan Trang, a prominent blogger and dissident.2 In March 2018, police physically blocked Nguyen Tuong Thuy, a blogger and vice president of the Independent Journalists Association of Vietnam, from leaving his house to meet with representatives from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).3
In the summer of 2017, Mai Khoi, a former pop star with prodemocracy views who has criticized the government online, was evicted from her apartment by her landlord under police pressure, and has since lived in a secret location. Since 2016, when she began to express her views openly, she has been banished from the Vietnamese music industry and effectively prohibited from performing concerts.4
Editors and journalists risk post-publication sanctions including imprisonment, fines, disciplinary warnings, and termination of employment. In 2016, the press credentials for Mai Phan Loi, head of the Hanoi bureau of the HCMC Law Newspaper, were revoked after he used a word deemed “not respectful to the military” in a Facebook post discussing the crash of a Vietnamese maritime patrol aircraft, in which Loi asked why the plane had “exploded into pieces.”5 A day later, Minister of Information and Communications Truong Minh Tuan warned that journalists should be considerate when using social networks.6
- 1. “Thailand: Investigate reports of abducted Vietnamese journalist”, Amnesty International, February 6, 2019, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/02/thailand-investigate-rep…; “RFA Blogger Truong Duy Nhat's Case Files Seized in Police Raid on Lawyer,” Radio Free Asia, July 2, 2019, https://www.rfa.org/english/news/vietnam/nhat-lawyer-07022019164415.html; “Former reporter arrested over land violations,” VNE Express, June 10, 2019, https://e.vnexpress.net/news/news/former-reporter-arrested-over-land-vi…. “Liên quan vụ án Vũ "nhôm": Khởi tố, khám xét chỗ ở của ông Trương Duy Nhất,” [Prosecution and raid Truong Duy Nhat’s house,] Tuoi Tre, June 10, 2019, https://tuoitre.vn/lien-quan-vu-an-vu-nhom-khoi-to-kham-xet-cho-o-cua-o….
- 2. “Vietnam: Activists beaten in Concert Raid,” Human Rights Watch, August 22, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/08/22/vietnam-activists-beaten-concert-ra….
- 3. “Vice President of IJAVN Blocked from Meeting with OHCHR Officials,” Vietnam Human Rights Defenders, March 8, 2018, http://www.vietnamhumanrightsdefenders.net/2018/03/08/vice-president-of….
- 4. “Vietnam's harsh summer: state launches largest crackdown on dissidents in years,” The Guardian, September 25, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/26/vietnams-state-largest-cr….
- 5. “Vietnam reporter's press card revoked for insulting military,” AP, June 20, 2016, https://www.ksl.com/article/40302640/vietnam-reporters-press-card-revok….
- 6. “Nhà báo phải cân nhắc khi sử dụng mạng xã hội,” [Journalists should consider when using social networks,] Vietnamnet, June 21, 2016, http://bit.ly/28KtOKa.
|Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack?||13|
Activists in Vietnam and abroad have been the target of systematic cyberattacks. Research published in September 2018 reported several distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks against the website of Viet Tan and independent news outlet Tiếng Dân between April and June 2018.1 The websites of two other critical outlets, Luat Khoa and the Vietnamese, were attacked amid largescale protests against the cybersecurity law in June 2018.2 Previous research from 2017 revealed that hackers conducting coordinated cyberespionage campaigns targeted two Vietnamese media organizations in 2015 and 2016 and the Vietnamese diaspora in Australia in 2017, as well as corporations with interests in Vietnam.3
For several years, activists have been subject to account takeovers, including spear phishing emails disguised as legitimate content, which carry malware that can breach the recipient’s digital security to access private account information. Starting in 2013, attacks using malware to spy on journalists, activists, and dissidents became more personal. The California-based Electronic Frontier Foundation and Associated Press journalists reported receiving infected emails inviting them to human rights conferences or offering academic papers on the topic, indicating that the senders are familiar with the activities and interests of the recipients.
- 1. “News From Deflect Labs: DDoS attacks against Vietnamese Civil Society,” eQualitie, September 7, 2018, https://equalit.ie/ddos-attacks-vietnamese-civil-society/.
- 2. “DDOS against websites critical against the Vietnam cybersecurity law,” Qurium, June 2018, https://www.qurium.org/alerts/vietnam/ddos-against-luatkhoa-org-and-the….
- 3. Nick Carr, “Cyber Espionage is Alive and Well: APT32 and the Threat to Global Corporations,” FireEye, May 14, 2017, https://www.fireeye.com/blog/threat-research/2017/05/cyber-espionage-ap….
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