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Picture Credit: Human Rights Watch
On the 30th of November this year, Amnesty International released a report that highlighted the complicity of Silicon Valley giants, Facebook and Google, in the repression of the freedom of speech in Vietnam. This 79 page long report detailed the way in which many activists and defenders of human rights had been victim to online censorship. Though Amnesty has been tracking the arrests and prosecution of critics of the regime since 2006, it is the increasing aligning of corporate policies with the repressive censorship of the Vietnamese state that has raised red flags.
In Southeast Asia, Vietnam has proved to be the most lucrative country. In the year 2018, Facebook’s revenue was just short of $1 bn - almost a third of the total revenue from the region. The report details various instances of human rights activists being censored, often without an explanation and often without even intimation by the website. While Facebook continues to promote itself as a space for free expression, its own transparency reports show that the social media platform had complied with 834 content restrictions in Vietnam in the first half of 2020 alone.
This increase came in the aftermath of the Dong Tam land dispute in order to quell any discussion or dissent against the ruling Communist Party. The Dong Tam land dispute was between a military owned telecommunications company which owned the lease to a land which the villagers of Dong Tam claimed as their own. Over the decades, the Vietnamese government has expanded its power to acquire land for "socio-economic development purposes'', leading to several high-profile, violent land disputes. In April this year, Facebook was compelled to comply with the Vietnamese government's requests to geo block content, after the latter deliberately slowed traffic to the platform by taking local servers offline, the Guardian reported.
As early as January 2020, Amnesty International had reported that the Vietnamese government was attempting to stifle peaceful criticism by arresting several activists over social media posts about the dispute. Nicholas Bequelin, Regional Director of Amnesty International had stated in this news report that "the Vietnamese government's heavy-handed efforts to censor discussion of this land dispute are the latest example of its campaign to assert control over online content."
The latest report by Amnesty states that there are about 170 "prisoners of conscience" in the country, 69 of whom have been incarcerated due to the criminalization of their online work and opinions. This kind of repression and censorship of individual expression, increasingly prevalent in other countries run by authoritarian governments, is further exacerbated in Vietnam by the presence of "cyber-armies", such as the Force 47, which help to enforce the government's laws regarding online behaviour.
Picture Credit: Bangkok Post
Increasing internet penetration was allowing for an increasing democratization of the Vietnamese public sphere. In a single-party state where any opposition is outlawed, social media allowed for the freedom of speech to flourish. The internet was seen as heralding a new era in Vietnamese society. The complicity of these tech giants in censoring speech has been portrayed by some users as a personal betrayal.
One Vietnamese online activist, Duong Van Thai was of the opinion, “I want Facebook and other companies to respect their users. I want them to respect the right to freedom of expression and their users’ human rights. I want them to refuse to comply with the Vietnamese authorities’ crackdown on independent voices” (Amnesty report, p. 35).
Each company responded differently to criticisms; however, they both stated the importance of complying with local regulations. Facebook commented that they try to do their best to maintain the right to freedom of expression but it is often difficult when they do not see eye-to-eye with local authorities. Youtube, on the other hand, said that they rely on local regulations to decide what kind of content should be prohibited.
As Big Tech spreads its roots further into every corner of the world, there are also questions being raised about its functions and complicity in regimes that seek to undermine the fundamental rights of its citizens. The human rights charges raised against Facebook and Google in Vietnam are one among a long list of growing allegations against them, as governments across the world are increasingly relying on these algorithms to increase surveillance on their citizens.
Sanjukta Bose | Mallika Anand