As governments across Asia fight for control over the internet and big tech, citizens on social media face rising online crackdowns

During the COVID-19 lockdowns in Vietnam last year, blogger Bui Van Thuan took to Facebook to criticize the government’s plan to use soldiers to deliver food to people confined to their homes in Ho Chi Minh City.

The next day, he was arrested.

Mr. Thuan, 41, a former teacher in the country’s northern province of Hoa Binh, was sentenced last month to eight years in prison for propaganda, followed by five years of probation.

Vietnamese authorities accused Mr Thuan of “creating, storing, distributing or disseminating information, materials and products aimed at opposing” the nation.

The charges are increasingly being applied to online content as the state exercises greater control over the internet, according to human rights groups.

“Vietnam’s government has long controlled the country’s traditional media,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia chief at Human Rights Watch.

“Now they are trying to control the online space.

“They have passed several laws for that purpose, and deployed state machines to find people online, force content moderation and removal decisions on platforms, use cyber trolls and by controlling internet access.”

Mr Thuan is the latest target of Vietnam’s tightening grip on the internet, with authorities arresting dozens of journalists and bloggers – and even a popular noodle vendor – on similar charges.

Vietnamese authorities last month said they had tightened regulations to deal with “fake” content on social media platforms – so it must be removed within 24 hours.

That makes the Southeast Asian country one of the world’s most controlled regimes for social media companies.

But Vietnam is not alone.

Online censorship will reach its highest level in 2022, with a record number of governments blocking political, social, or religious content, according to Freedom House, a nonprofit based in Washington DC.

The rise of “digital oppression” has serious consequences for basic rights, including freedom of expression, access to information and privacy, “especially for people living under authoritarian regimes”, it said in its annual report.

“In some countries, it’s about limiting the voices of political dissidents, activists and others critical of the government,” said Damar Juniarto, executive director of the Southeast Asian digital rights group Freedom of Expression Network (SafeNet).

“But the government also wants to control the big tech firms – they see them as too powerful, too influential.”

A ‘Draconian’ period when the government breaks down

More than three-quarters of the world’s more than 4.5 billion internet users live in countries where authorities punish online expression, according to Freedom House, which ranks China as having the worst environment for internet freedom.


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