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16 Aug 2023

Lien Hoang, Nikkei

Vietnam's draft regulation to ISPs raises concerns over users' freedom of expression & internet access

"Vietnam's plan to block users puts internet access at risk", 16 August 2023

Vietnam has an established track record of blocking online content criticizing the one-party state. Now it is proposing to go a step further by blocking the users themselves from accessing the internet.

The government has drafted rules to work with internet service providers (ISPs) to kick people offline if they share content deemed illegal, with implementation possible as early as this year. The move threatens to throttle web access further in a country where an estimated 1,000 websites, from those of the BBC to Freedom House, are already blocked.

Ahead of U.S. President Joe Biden's planned visit, activists say Washington must push Vietnam to respect internet rights.

A country of 100 million, Vietnam does not have China's Great Firewall, a mix of laws and technologies that keep Chinese internet users largely cut off from the global web. But the proposed regulation would expand on Vietnam's current rules that require social media companies like TikTok and Facebook to block unfavorable posts.

Business costs are expected to rise under the proposal, a draft decree that also calls for data centers to suspend clients who spread "law-breaking information."

Dhevy Sivaprakasam, senior policy counsel at internet advocacy Access Now, says she has not heard of other countries forcing ISPs to cut off individuals.

The draft includes "more precise enforcement" against offenders, especially those on social media livestreams, and official demands to block them "may catch businesses off guard," said Vu Yen, country manager at law firm Rouse.

The information ministry is collecting feedback on the regulation, intended to replace current rules known as Decree 72 and Decree 27.

Among websites barred in Vietnam, about 33% relate to politics, 27% to news outlets, and 15% to human rights, according to the Open Observatory of Network Interference, a nonprofit organization that tracks online censorship around the world. The researchers tested 2,054 sites last year, finding 1,108 inaccessible on at least some networks.

"That these categories are not blocked on all networks leads us to believe that the Vietnamese ISPs might have been filtering content under broad government orders to block what is related to curtailing political opposition, unfavorable to the party, corruption, and human rights," the observatory said.

Cloud and internet providers also could have to revoke services from organizations, in addition to individuals, at the state's behest if the decree goes through.

In that case, the cloud and internet providers would need a transition period and may have to prepare technical upgrades, according to Yen.

"This could include enhancing data storage and security measures, ensuring robust systems for processing takedown requests, and improving content moderation capabilities," she said.

Sivaprakasam said the U.S. and other democracies should not treat human rights as secondary to economic and geopolitical goals in Vietnam, which they see as a helpful neighbor in balancing competition with China.

Viettel, a military-owned ISP, told Nikkei it "will follow all the policies that will be published by the government." Rivals FPT, Mobifone and VNPT did not reply to requests for comment.