Facebook and YouTube accused of complicity in Vietnam repression

The Guardian

Amnesty report accuses sites of openly signalling they will bow to authoritarian regimes

A person using Facebook at a cafe in Hanoi, Vietnam,

A person using Facebook at a cafe in Hanoi, Vietnam, last month. Photograph: Kham/ReutersRebecca Ratcliffe South-east Asia correspondentTue 1 Dec 2020 00.01 GMT

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Facebook and YouTube are complicit in “censorship and repression on an industrial scale” in Vietnam, according to a report by Amnesty International that accuses the platforms of openly signalling that they are willing to bow to the wishes of authoritarian regimes.

Facebook’s executives have repeatedly promoted the platform as a bastion of “free expression”, but in Vietnam, where there is little tolerance for dissent, the company complied with hundreds of requests to censor content earlier this year. This includes peaceful criticism of the state by activists, which is protected under international human rights law.

Vietnam is a lucrative market for both Facebook and Google, which owns YouTube. In 2018, Facebook’s income from the country was almost $1bn (£750m) – roughly one-third of all revenue from south-east Asia. Google earned $475m during the same period, thanks to YouTube advertising.

“Facebook is by far the most popular and profitable platform in Vietnam,” said Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for campaignswho added that businesses had a responsibility to respect human rights wherever they operated.

“Today these platforms have become hunting grounds for censors, military cyber-troops and state-sponsored trolls. The platforms themselves are not merely letting it happen – they’re increasingly complicit,” she added.

In the first half of 2020, Facebook complied with 834 content restrictions, according to its transparency report – a huge rise on the previous six-month reporting period. According to Amnesty, the increase was partly driven by the authorities’ efforts to silence any discussion of the Dong Tam land dispute, a high-profile clash over the military’s decision to build an airfield on land claimed by villagers.

In April, Facebook agreed to significantly increase its compliance with requests to geoblock content, following pressure from the Vietnamese government, which it said had deliberately slowed traffic to the platform by taking its local servers offline. Amnesty said the decision could have “far-reaching global consequences”, as other repressive governments could adopt similar strategies.

In recent months, Facebook has also complied with requests from the Thai government, including by blocking access within Thailand to a popular group that featured criticism of the monarchy. The group, which had 1 million members, was taken down after the Thai government threatened Facebook with legal action.

In a statement, Facebook said that over the past few months it had faced additional pressure from Vietnam to restrict more content, but added: “We will do everything we can to ensure that our services remain available so people can continue to express themselves.”

Despite major economic reform in Vietnam, the ruling Communist party retains a tight grip on the media and severely restricts space for dissent and freedom of expression. The country ranks 175th out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index.

Amnesty International said it had identified at least 170 prisoners of conscience – the highest number since the group began such monitoring in the country. Among them, 69 were imprisoned for posting content online.

Activists report harassment on social media and in real life. On top of the threat of imprisonment, human rights defenders said they had been beaten by police and attacked by unidentified groups of assailants. Online, they face harassment by pro-government trolls, according to the report, which pointed to Vietnam’s Force 47, a 10,000-strong military unit, and “Du Luan Vien”, a volunteer group made up of Communist party activists.

Facebook said: “Millions of people in Vietnam use our services every day to connect with family and friends and thousands of businesses rely on them to reach customers. We don’t always see eye to eye with governments on issues like speech and expression, including in Vietnam, but we work hard to defend this right around the world.”

YouTube did not respond to a request for comment but told Amnesty that it “evaluates government requests for removal of content against human rights standards”.

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