Vietnam's government wants to 'manage' online chat apps

The Vietnamese government might expand its power to 'manage' chat apps in what the government says is an effort to help network providers. Detractors say it would increase government censorship. 

Kham/Reuters/File
A woman uses a mobile phone to take pictures in a village northwest of Hanoi, Vietnam. There are over 130 million mobile phones in Vietnam – a number larger than the country's population of 90 million since some users have more than 1 mobile device, according to a study by Jana, a technology research group based in Boston.

Vietnam's government is to decide policy in managing free internet-based telecom tools like Viber, Line and Whatsapp, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung said on Friday, a move bound to increase concerns about Communist Party censorship.

State media said the government might "ban" free messaging services because of the harm done to network providers.

Vietnam has repeatedly come under fire for curbs on free speech and harsh treatment for bloggers who dare to criticize the one-party regime.

The prime minister said the government would "build and promulgate the policies" in managing the free communication services on the internet (Over-The-Top (OTT) services.)"

Like many other confusing regulations, it didn't explain clearly what the government plans to do. But state media said it might "ban" all OTT services.

"We will lose 40-50 percent of our revenue if all of our 40 million customers use Viber instead of traditional call and text," a representative of Viettel Telecom, one of the country's biggest phone network providers, told state media.

Vietnam has 17 million smart phone users, according to a report from Google. The demand for communications is huge with 60 million people under the age of 30.

Jong Buhm Park, Chief Executive Officer of NHN Vietnam, the developer of Japan's Line app, said a ban would not happen.

"The government has more options, like cooperation between OTT and network providers," Park told Reuters.

The prime minister's statement comes two weeks after the government ordered all foreign websites, including Facebook, to have at least one server hosted in Vietnam.

"This looks like an additional step from the government to censor Internet users," said a diplomat who requested anonymity. "Once it can't control them, it will block everything,"

Saudi Arabia in June banned Viber, which is hard for the state to monitor and deprives licensed telecom companies of revenue from international calls and texts.

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