Growing curbs on Internet freedom (Freedom House)
“The United States joined Internet giants Google (GOOG) and Facebook on Tuesday in criticizing a new decree in Vietnam that further curbs online free speech and forces foreign companies to keep servers inside the country,” AP reports:
The Internet has emerged as a major avenue of dissent in Vietnam, alarming conservative elements in the Communist government. Authorities want to stifle dissent, but must balance this with the reality that a free Internet is important to maintaining economic growth and attracting investment. ….U.S. officials in Hanoi, as well as large multinational Internet companies, lobbied the government during the drafting process. Some of the more draconian elements were dropped, but the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi made it clear that it was disappointed with the final version.
The new rule, called Decree 72, “appears to be inconsistent with Vietnam’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as its commitments under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” the American Embassy in Hanoi said in a statement.
“Fundamental freedoms apply online just as they do offline,” the embassy said. “We are deeply concerned by the decree’s provisions that appear to limit the types of information individuals can share via personal social media accounts and on websites.”
“The decree, announced last Wednesday and scheduled to go into force on Sept. 1, states that personal blogs and social media sites “should be used to provide and exchange information of that individual only,” the New York Times reports:
It was unclear how the government would enforce the new ruling. In China, articles critical of the government are routinely disseminated on social media but then often swiftly removed, and searches for certain sensitive words or phrases are often blocked, creating a game of cat and mouse in which users try to outsmart the censors.
“We believe that the decree will negatively affect Vietnam’s Internet ecosystem,” said the Asia Internet Coalition, an industry grouping representing Google, Facebook and other Internet companies. “In the long term, the decree will stifle innovation and discourage businesses from operating in Vietnam.”
Reporters Without Borders on Monday called on Vietnam’s Communist authorities to end internet censorship and release 35 imprisoned bloggers.
“Vietnamese authorities have been cracking down harder in order to suppress dissent and prevent any detribalization,” it said in a petition circulated online.
The media freedom group (also known as Reporters Sans Frontieres), which includes Vietnam on its list of “Enemies of the Internet”, said: “If [the decree] takes effect, Vietnamese will be permanently deprived of the independent and outspoken information that normally circulates in blogs and forums”.
It called for the release of 35 bloggers, including the human rights activist Dieu Cay and the lawyer Le Quoc Quan (right), currently serving sentences on charges of subversion, anti-government propaganda and trying to overthrow the government.
“Vietnam’s bloggers are a source of independently-reported news and information that is an alternative to the government media. They write about corruption, environmental problems and the country’s political developments,” RSF said.
“There have been several waves of arrests of bloggers, netizens and journalists in recent years. Mindful of the Arab uprisings, the Vietnamese authorities have been cracking down harder in order to suppress dissent and prevent any destabilization.”
Several international rights and democracy groups recently called for Le Quoc Quan’s release in an open letter on the occasion of Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang’s visit to Washington.
In its report this year on civil liberties in Vietnam, Human Rights Watch highlighted “a subcurrent of state-sponsored repression and persecution of individuals whose speech crosses boundaries and addresses sensitive issues such as criticizing the state’s foreign policies in regards to China or questioning the monopoly power of the communist party.”
Vietnam’s new internet curbs are the latest manifestation of a disturbing international trend.
“What we’ve seen in our research is that as more people access the Internet, governments are more and more likely to impose measures that censor certain types of content,” said Sanja Kelly, project director for Freedom House’s “Freedom on the Net,” which will publish its 2013 report in September. “One of our findings for this year will be that Internet censorship is on the rise: More Web sites are being blocked than ever before, and an increasing number of countries are passing laws that would restrict certain types of online content.”
*Le Quoc Quan was a Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.