Vietnam's Internet decree receives backlash from US embassy in Hanoi

Vietnam’s latest decree on Internet freedom raises attention at the US embassy in Hanoi and online-freedom groups.

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    Three young Vietnamese girls use a laptop and smart phones to go online at a cafe in Ha Noi, Vietnam. Close to a third of Vietnam’s 90 million people are online and men and women browsing phones and tablets are ubiquitous in the cafes of its towns and cities.
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The United States embassy in Hanoi expressed “deep concern” about Vietnam’s latest decree on the country’s Internet activity in a statement issued Tuesday.

Under Decree 72, individuals will not be allowed “to quote general information ... from newspapers, press agencies, or other state-owned websites,” said the head of Vietnam’s Department of Radio, TV, and Electronic Information Hoang Vinh Bao in a report accessed via Radio Free Asia. The Vietnamese government says that Decree 72 is meant to protect intellectual property rights and curb plagiarism in the country. However, both the US embassy and media freedom groups view the new decree as the latest in a series of Internet regulations in Vietnam, meant to prevent social media users from sharing others' posts. 

The decree is “Vietnam’s latest attempt to suppress political blogging and deter all forms of critical commentary online,” writes Shawn Crispin, the Committee to Protect Journalists’s Southeast Asia representative in an e-mail to the Monitor sent from Bangkok. "Independent bloggers have challenged the ruling Communist Party's stranglehold on the media, and this new decree is the government's latest attempt to close down that open space."

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All news publications in Vietnam are owned and controlled by the government, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Facebook has emerged in recent years as a "crucial platform" for Vietnam's bloggers, Mr. Crispin writes. Facebook had more than 11 million registered users in Vietnam at the beginning of 2013, according to a study by Jana, a technology research group based in Boston.  

"Vietnam's in a tough spot," says Zachary Abuza, a professor of political science at Simmons College. Vietnam is trying to join the US-sponsored Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would require Vietnam to have a good human rights record, says Mr. Abuza. The Vietnamese government is unsure how to balance its desire to control the Internet with its economic interests.  

President Obama met with Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang to discuss the TPP in late July at the White House. Vietnam's record on human rights, specifically Vietnam’s crackdown on political bloggers, was a main point of contention that could harm Vietnam's chances of partnering with the US in this bilateral trade agreement. However, despite Obama's acknowledgements of Vietnam's human rights record, TPP talks have continued.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that there are 14 imprisoned journalists in Vietnam, and Reporters Without Borders places Vietnam on its "Enemies of the Internet" list, alongside Bahrain, Cuba, and Iran. 

Vietnam also runs the risk of angering foreign investors with its expanding repertoire of Internet laws. 

Whereas China carries enough Internet customers to negotiate country-specific search settings with Internet companies such as Google, Vietnam does not have the same clout, says Abuza.

Decree 72 originally included provisions that would have required foreign Internet companies, such as Google and Yahoo, to have Internet servers and offices on Vietnamese soil for the sites to be accessible in Vietnam. This would have forced the companies to cede user information to the Vietnamese government, if asked. However, the Asia Internet Coalition – an industry association formed by eBay, Facebook, Google, Salesforce and Yahoo – issued a statement standing against these provisions, calling them possible impediments to foreign investment. Shortly after this, the Vietnamese government removed stipulations about having company servers in Vietnam.

But the new decree is not really that much of a change for Vietnam, says David Brown, a former foreign service officer in Vietnam and current commentator on the region.

While the Vietnamese government does need to figure out a way to curb the rampant aggregation and plagiarism that pervades many Vietnamese-language sites, a new decree always looks suspect, says Mr. Brown. New Internet laws come with the assumption that the government is trying to silence online dissent. 

"The Vietnamese regime has a tendency to pass all kinds of restrictive edicts, decrees, and laws, which it doesn't enforce that well," says Brown. This new decree is "redundant" and reactions are overblown. Internet-savvy Vietnamese have been circumventing Internet restrictions for years and will continue to do so, he says.

"They write all of these laws, but they are either not enforceable or they are enforced so selectively that they are not perceived as a really tangible threat to the individual," Brown says.

As TPP negotiations continue and Vietnam has smoothed over its relations with the Asia Internet Coalition, Brown says that Vietnam is unlikely to make anything other than cosmetic changes to its Internet policies in the near future.

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