New law to tighten controls on free speech

The government wants more control of the internet to stifle the free exchange of information and the organisation of protests such as these that broke out at the weekend.

Vietnam has rushed through a new cyber security law aimed at tightening the government’s control of information and silencing its critics on the internet.

The National Assembly overwhelmingly approved the bill despite widespread alarm at home and abroad over the implications for free speech and the cyber economy.

Police set up barricades outside the assembly before the vote following sometimes violent protests in recent days against another bill, now delayed, to grant privileges to foreign companies in new economic zones.

The government appears to be calculating that restrictions on internet freedoms will not generate the same degree of passion as a law perceived as giving special privileges to Chinese companies.

The cyber law will require Facebook, Google and other global platforms to open offices in Vietnam and store in the country personal data on their Vietnamese users.

It will also demand the removal within 24 hours of any posts that the government deems objectionable.

Ruthlessly suppressed

Amnesty International described it as a devastating blow to freedom of expression in Vietnam, as it gives the government sweeping new powers to monitor online activity and target users.

The law is the culmination of a concerted drive by the government to gain control of social media and intimidate foreign companies into compliance.

The Vietnamese have become some of the world’s most enthusiastic users of Facebook, and the network has enabled bloggers and government critics to share information and views that were once ruthlessly suppressed.

The Vietnamese authorities have looked enviously at China, which moved early to ban the use of global social networks. They fear that shutting down the global platforms now would provoke a dangerous backlash – instead they plan to intimidate users and enforce compliance by the foreign companies.

A series of prominent bloggers have been arrested and imprisoned over the last two years as the Communist party steps up its campaign to silence dissident voices.

Violent clashes

By packaging the new law as a “cyber security” regulation, the government is attempting to present it as a legitimate step in line with international practice.

The sign of some dissent in the National Assembly is an indication of how controversial the new law is seen. Some nine per cent of legislators either abstained or voted against the bill.

Even such limited opposition is extremely rare in a body normally seen as a rubber stamp legislature that is selected, directed and manipulated by the Communist party and its affiliate organisations.

The extent of the nationwide anti-China protests, which began on Sunday and led to violent clashes in the south of the country, may have convinced the authorities of the urgent need for the cyber law.

Social media has helped shine a spotlight on subjects that remain taboo in state controlled media, including the extent of discontent in the country over issues such as corruption, China’s expansion and environmental degradation.