New push to constrain social media

The blogger known as Mother Mushroom was exiled to the United States last month after being sentenced to ten years imprisonment for criticising the government.

The Vietnamese government is stepping up monitoring of social media as it seeks ways to stifle the voice of independent bloggers and other critics.

It says it has already established a “national centre” with the capacity to read and evaluate the one hundred million messages which are posted in Vietnam every day.

The announcement comes just weeks before a new cyber security law is expected to come into effect designed to rein in foreign based platforms such as Facebook and Google. They will be required to open offices in Vietnam and store information in country.

The Information Minister, Nguyen Manh Hung, said that work was underway to develop what he called a “garbage sweeping tool” to remove unapproved content.

In comments to the National Assembly, he said the government aimed to establish a legal definition of what constituted “false information” and then amend laws accordingly.

The Communist authorities were taken by surprise by the explosive growth of social media in Vietnam, which has seriously undermined the party’s monopoly on information.

Unlike China, which took immediate control by developing what came to be known as its “great firewall”, Vietnam took no action while tens of millions of people signed up to Facebook and other platforms.

The government recognises that banning them now would cause uproar so it is urgently seeking ways to police content, put pressure on foreign based platforms to conform and to establish Vietnamese alternatives that can be more easily controlled.

“We have been living in cyberspace for only a decade, so we don’t have much experience and the internet is still growing, but in real life we’ve had thousands of years in experience. So some logic from real life could be applied to cyberspace to tackle the issue of false information,” said Mr Hung in comments quoted by state media.

A former CEO of the military run telecom company, Viettel, Mr Hung has brought a new energy to the task of constraining public debate since taking office in July.

The new law, to come into effect next year, contains sweeping provisions to ban the use of the internet for “distorting history”, “negating the country’s revolutionary achievements” or “undermining national solidarity”.

In reality, the security services will be the sole arbiters as to what is deemed acceptable content. Dozens of bloggers have been arrested and imprisoned in recent months for abusing what the Vietnamese legal code defines as “their democratic freedoms”.