Internet freedom has gone from bad to worse in Vietnam as an online censorship law known as Decree 72 went into effect this month. It bans bloggers and users of social media from quoting, gathering, or summarizing information from press organizations or government websites. While the main justification for the law is to uphold "national security," Vietnamese authorities also claim that this law is aimed at combating online copyright infringement.
The law is packed with vague language, including bans on “abusing the provision and use of the Internet and information on the web” to “oppose the Socialist Republic of Vietnam,” and “undermining the fine customs and traditions of the nation.” It requires filtering of all such offensive content, requires real-name identification for all personal websites and profiles, and creates legal liability for intermediaries such as blogs and ISPs for failing to regulate third-party contributors, triggering grave concerns about the law’s impact on domestic online service providers. In addition, the decree attempts to require all foreign and domestic companies that provide online services to cooperate with the government to take down prohibited content. For international companies without a business presence in Vietnam, the law would “encourage” them to establish offices or representatives in the country in order to hold them accountable for implementation of the decree.
Some supporters of Decree 72 also claim that the law could function as a means to fight content piracy. Vietnam is one of the 12 countries negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, and it's unclear if that status has compelled authorities to embrace copyright enforcement as one of its functions, or if they are simply trying to further legitimize this already draconian law.
Internet users in Vietnam have been facing greater and greater restrictions over recent years. The government has jailed record numbers of bloggers and dissidents in 2013, including democracy activist and human rights lawyer Le Quoc Quan, who has been jailed since December 2012 on politically-motivated charges of tax evasion. He is still awaiting trial.
EFF has been loudly critical of the law since early drafts appeared last year. The European Parliament has voiced its concerns, calling on Vietnam to modify the Decree “to ensure that it protects the right to freedom of expression online.” The Asia Internet Coalition, an industry group that represents companies including Google and Facebook believes that, “In the long term, the Decree will stifle innovation and discourage businesses from operating in Vietnam, thereby hindering Vietnam’s goal to establish itself as an advanced competitive ICT nation.” And while there have been some minor changes—foreign businesses are no longer required to obtain legal status and set up servers in Vietnam, for example—the 60-page law still poses a grave threat to freedom of expression.
Human Rights Watch warns that the vague language in Decree 72 will be used to selectively prosecute individuals and organizations “that have become a thorn in the side of the authorities in Hanoi.” While no arrests have been made in the first week of implementation, EFF shares these concerns and is keeping a close eye on developments. The Vietnamese government has made itself a new tool for prosecuting all kinds of undesirable speech. It is only a matter of time before they use it.