Facebook and YouTube have become “human rights-free zones” in Vietnam, according to a report published by Amnesty International on Tuesday, which accuses the tech giants’ complicit role of censorship in the country.
“Today these platforms have become hunting grounds for censors, military cyber-troops, and state-sponsored trolls,” said Ming Yu Hah, deputy regional director for campaigns at Amnesty International. “The platforms themselves are not merely letting it happen—they’re increasingly complicit.”
The country has seen at least 170 people imprisoned or persecuted for the non-violent expression of their beliefs, the highest number recorded by the human rights organization since 1996. 78% of the prisoners have been sentenced to jail this year solely for their activity on social media.
As one of the fastest growing economies in Asia, Vietnam is a lucrative market for tech giants including Facebook and Google. Facebook gained USD 1 billion in the country in 2018, accounting for 30% of its total revenue in Southeast Asia, while Google earned USD 475 million in the same year, mainly from YouTube advertising.
Market access, however, requires the tech giants to follow local laws that muzzle freedom of expression and prohibits Vietnamese citizens from speaking out against the government, according to the report. “Vietnam today is one of the most repressive environments in the world with regards to freedom of expression online,” it added.
While Facebook told KrASIA in an email that the firm will work hard to defend the rights of speech and expression, the company admitted that it is facing “additional pressure” from the Vietnamese government to restrict more content.
Spike in takedown requests
The social media giant reported an almost tenfold spike in takedown requests between January and June this year, compared to the second half of 2019, according to Facebook’s transparency report.
“I would like to call on Facebook to stop cracking down on accounts that circulate political content. It’s the very basic right of the people,” human rights advocate Nguyen Van Trang told Amnesty International after Facebook removed his content that was deemed critical of the government. “We have been stripped of our ability to express our opinions. Our ability to reach the public is now very limited,” he added.
Last month, the Vietnamese government warned to block Facebook if it refuses to censor more content critical of the state, according to a report by Reuters, citing a senior Facebook official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
With around 68 million of Facebook users as of March—accounting for 68.8% of the country’s entire population—Facebook is encountering mounting pressure. Vietnam’s Minister of Information and Communications Nguyen Manh Hung urged the local tech community in a meeting last year to build their own social media network and search engines that could compete against Facebook and Google.
Although Google declined to comment, the spokesperson said that the firm has “clear policies for removal requests from governments around the world,” which have to notify the firm of content that they deem illegal through official processes.