Expect to get caught if you post anti-government material on the internet in Vietnam or take a phishing trip. From 2019 authorities can build evidence against you from material provided by email services and social media networks including Facebook. Yet the country, mindful of its role in the emerging digital economy, won’t close down websites the way China does.
Vietnam has long walked a thin line between a free internet as part of its economic growth and resistance against what market research firm IDC’s country manager Lam Nguyen calls “digital disasters.” The country is getting testier toward online dissent at the same time.
A draft Cybersecurity Law decree to take effect Jan. 1 after 18 months in the making will help the communist government reach these goals by ordering service providers to do some of its surveillance work.
Despite objections from Google and Facebook, global social media as well as email and e-commerce providers may be asked to store data in Vietnam, according to the Cybersecurity Law. Alternately, they can self-censor, turn over customer profiles and delete certain content, Nguyen said.
“It’s like saying OK, as an online service provider with Vietnam users, you do collect data about such users and their online activities, but you are letting users use your platform or services for unlawful activities, so please come to the front of the line (so) that we can keep an eye out for you,” said Yee Chung Seck, partner with the Baker McKenzie law firm in Ho Chi Minh City.
Catching up in cybersecurity
According to a United Nations index, Vietnam ranked 101 out of 165 countries in exposure to cyberattacks.
“Vietnam has been historically weak when in it comes to cybersecurity,” cyber intelligence analyst Emilio Iasiello wrote in a commentary for the Cyber Research Databank.
Domestic websites were hit by more than 6,500 malware or phishing attacks in the first eight months of 2018, Viet Nam News reports.
Vietnam does not block the websites of foreign internet services that could spread objectionable content. Vietnam, like much of Asia, is trying to develop a digital economy, but unlike China it lacks easy-to-control homegrown alternates to the major Silicon Valley internet firms.
“Obviously, the business and user communities are more likely hoping to avoid censorship of the internet outright, due to the growing digital commerce economy and also wanting a platform where freedom of expressions and opinions are allowed,” Nguyen said.
A digital economy gives Vietnam an opportunity to resolve “big issues in its economic development,” the deputy minister of industry and trade was quoted saying in June. The manufacturing-reliant economy has grown 6 to 7 percent per year since 2012.
About 70 percent of Vietnam’s 92 million people use the internet, with 53 million on social media sites.
Protest from multinational internet content providers
After Vietnam’s National Assembly approved the Cybersecurity Law in June, 17 U.S. congressional representatives sent a letter to Google and Facebook. They urged both to avoid storing data in Vietnam, to establish “transparent guidelines” on content removal and to publish the number of requests for removal.
Facebook, Google and other foreign internet companies said earlier this month via a lobbying group that requirements to localize data would hobble investment and economic growth in Vietnam. The law also requires firms with more than 10,000 local users to set up local representative offices.
Facebook said for this report it “remains committed to its community in Vietnam and in helping Vietnamese businesses grow at home and abroad.”
Internet providers also worry the cybersecurity law gives “too much power” to Vietnam’s police ministry and lacks “due process,” Nguyen said. Authorities, they fear, could “seize customer data” and expose a provider’s users, partners or employees to arrest, which goes against privacy protection policies, he said.
Fear among online activists
Vietnam is looking to the cybersecurity law as well to control public criticism of government activity, activist bloggers believe. A string of Vietnamese bloggers was arrested in 2016 and 2017.
Authorities will be able to collect user names, profiles and data on their friends, media reports and analysts say.
“This law threatens and further curbs freedom to information, infringes (on) personal privacy, and will be certainly used as a tool to give more power to police force, which violates rights, even on behalf of the court on judging on the use of internet,” Hanoi-based internet blogger and human rights activist Nguyen Lan Thang said.
Vietnamese activists leaned heavily on internet media to spread information about what they considered slow government reaction to a mass fish die-off in 2016. They use it now to decry corruption.
“The Cybersecurity Law will have a huge impact on Vietnam’s dissidents and online activists. It will be a tool to silence dissidents, social commentators, and activists in general,” said Vu Quoc Ngu, a writer in Hanoi and director of the non-profit Defend the Defender.
Vu Pham, Michelle Quinn of VOA contributed to this report.