Self-Expression, Facebook, and the Fight for Freedom of Speech in Vietnam
After two years behind bars, Vietnamese dissident blogger Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, widely known by her pen name “Mother Mushroom,” has arrived in Texas as a free woman. Since 2006, Quynh raised awareness of social injustice in Vietnam—such as the epidemic of unexplained deaths in police custody—on her blog and Facebook account. Mother Mushroom was arrested for her writings in 2016 and sentenced to a 10-year prison term for “anti-state propaganda.” Along with others, PEN America has long advocated for her release. Her early release—even as it appears to be conditioned on Quynh’s forced exile from Vietnam—is cause for celebration; however, we cannot forget that many others remain in jail in Vietnam for the “crime” of speaking their mind.
For many Vietnamese men and women, a major avenue for self-expression has been Facebook. Out of Vietnam’s population of almost 100 million people, over 50 million have a Facebook account, making it by far the most popular social media platform in the country. Unlike the country’s state-run media, Facebook previously provided a comparatively open space for Vietnamese citizens to express themselves, to debate public policy, and to organize peaceful protests.
For instance, when the well-known singer and activist Mai Khoi presented herself as an independent candidate in the 2016 National Assembly elections, she circumvented the law against public campaigning by gathering support on Facebook. Vietnamese news channels also censored any mention of Mai Khoi’s meeting with then-President Barack Obama later that year, but videos and details of their discussion were all over Facebook. For a while, social media seemed to be a promising avenue for free speech in a country that has otherwise been “contending for the title of one of Asia’s most repressive governments.”
However, within the past year the Vietnamese government’s crackdown on freedom of expression has extended to the social media realm. Vietnamese authorities have pressured Facebook into freezing the accounts of countless journalists and human rights defenders, claiming that they spread inaccurate and anti-state information. The government also forced local companies to withdraw advertising on Facebook until such “toxic” content was removed.
In 2017, the Vietnam People’s Army revealed Force 47, a 10,000 person cyberspace military unit whose job would be to combat dissent on the internet. Not surprisingly, Facebook then started taking down any pages and posts that included criticism of Vietnam’s Communist Party, which some suspect is due to “abuse” reports filed by government-sponsored trolls.
Meanwhile, last year, the Vietnamese government announced that Facebook was setting up a communication channel “to directly coordinate with Vietnam’s communication and information ministry to prioritize [their] requests,” leaving lingering and deeply uncomfortable questions about the extent to which the social media giant is facilitating the censorship of its own platform. But Vietnam’s control over its citizens’ digital rights does not end with censorship. Vietnamese Facebook users can be sent to jail for years for their posts. Just last month, Dao Quang Thuc, a retired teacher, was sentenced to a 14-year prison term for Facebook posts calling for improved protective measures for the environment. Less than a week later, three activists—Doan Khanh Vinh Quang, Nguyen Hong Nguyen, and Truong Dinh Khang—were convicted for online activity under Article 258 of Vietnam’s Criminal Code: the often-employed and vaguely-worded prohibition against “abuse of democratic freedoms” to undermine state interests.
We can expect to see an even greater surge of dissident arrests next year, as a new, deeply repressive and unduly broad cybersecurity law will take effect in January and grant the Vietnamese government unchecked power to monitor the social media activity of its citizens. The government will be able to force technology companies to provide them with vast amounts of data, including users’ personal information, as well as to censor posts.
Vietnam’s new cybersecurity law is reliant on the cooperation of digital giants like Facebook and Google, who have claimed that they have no choice but to comply with Vietnamese laws. These arguments are very similar to the arguments playing out as Google considers launching a censored search engine in China, which has a near-identical cybersecurity law. Laws of this type are attempting to transform compliance into complicity, to disastrous effect for freedom of speech.
Online companies like Facebook and Google cannot allow themselves to be co-opted by authoritarian governments. Facebook, especially, must remain a tool for Vietnamese people to express themselves. It is incumbent upon Facebook—a moral necessity—that it demonstrate its own commitment to free speech by refusing to cooperate with censorship or state control of its platform.