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Vietnam tightens up online as cyber-security law takes effect

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Vietnam's new cyber-security law came into effect on 1 January, censoring what citizens can read online and placing strict controls on the operations of overseas tech companies within the country.

The so-called cyber-security law was passed by the National Assembly in June 2018. It requires companies such as Facebook and Google to open a local office in Vietnam, to store local user data and to hand over any information if the Vietnamese government asks for it. The decree also requires social media companies to remove any content that the authorities deem offensive or 'toxic'.

The Vietnamese government says the law is necessary to fight cyber crime and prevent cyber terrorism, tackling “hostile and reactionary forces”. Major General Luong Tam Quang, chief of Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security, said that the new cyber law brings Vietnam in line with other countries and that the law was “within the ability of business”.

However, the law also bans internet users in Vietnam from spreading information deemed to be anti-state or anti-government, or from using the internet to “post false information that could cause damage to socio-economic activities”.

Somewhat ironically, in light of these restrictions, Vietnam’s government is seeking to establish a global reputation for the country as a south-east Asian hub for financial technology (fintech). Critics say the new law will only serve to hurt Vietnam’s economic prospects and that it is likely to make overseas tech firms and start-ups think long and hard about relocating to the area, particularly in view of the data-sharing demands that the authorities are now making.

There is also grave concern that the new law enables the one-party Communist government to crack down even further on citizen dissent and free speech. Parallels with China, Vietnam’s Communist neighbour, and her discouraging attitude towards an open internet have been noted.

“These provisions will result in severe limitations on Vietnam’s digital economy, dampening the foreign investment climate and hurting opportunities for local businesses to flourish inside and beyond Vietnam,” said Jeff Paine, managing director of industry group Asia Internet Coalition, speaking to Reuters. Both trade and foreign investment are critical components of Vietnam’s economy.

Speaking in June 2018, when the decree was originally passed, Clare Algar, director of global operations at Amnesty International, warned that the law’s sweeping power “has potentially devastating consequences for freedom of expression” in Vietnam. “This vote means there is now no safe place left [in Vietnam] for people to speak freely,” she said.

Neither Facebook nor Google have publicly commented on the new law thus far. Internet companies have one year in which to comply with the new regulations, after Vietnam’s ominous-sounding Ministry of Public Security (MPS) published its draft decree, indicating how the law would be implemented in November.

The Internet was officially introduced to Vietnam in November 1997, when the Asian country was first connected to the global network; approximately half of the country’s 95 million population now have access. Vietnam already has over 60 million Facebook users in a country where almost 60 per cent of the population are under 35.

The new cyber-security law comes into effect a little over a year after Vietnam deployed a 10,000-strong cyber unit, dubbed ‘Force 47’, to combat 'wrong views'. Lieutenant-General Nguyen Trong Nghia, deputy head of the military’s political department, speaking during his appearance at a conference of the Central Propaganda Department in December 2018, was quoted as saying, “In every hour, minute, and second, we must be ready to fight proactively against the wrong views”.

Critics say Vietnam’s online freedom has diminished dramatically since the hardline administration took charge of the country in 2016. While Vietnam does not block social media web sites such as Facebook, Google and Twitter outright - unlike China - there has been a police crackdown on bloggers and people using Facebook to criticise the government, with dozens of political and free-speech activists already jailed.

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