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.
- Vietnam has arrested dozens of journalists and vloggers over social media posts
- Human rights groups are concerned “digital oppression” could have serious consequences
- Several countries in Asia have upcoming elections, prompting warnings of further online restrictions
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.
Elsewhere in Asia, Indonesia introduced rules this year to make social media platforms remove content deemed illegal or “disturbing public order” within four hours if it is deemed important, and 24 hours otherwise.
Those who do not comply may face fines, criminal charges or be blocked in the country.
Its new criminal code has also tightened controls on so-called “fake news” and insulting the president online.
Vietnam’s Minister of Information and Communications Nguyen Manh Hung told parliament that the new law was necessary, as there was a risk that “fake news, if handled slowly, will spread widely.”
Companies that do not meet the deadline may be banned from the platform.
Meanwhile, Singapore last month passed an online security bill that requires social media sites to block “harmful content” within hours, failing which authorities can ask service providers to block access to that content to domestic users.
India said in October it would set up a government panel to examine user complaints about content moderation decisions by social media platforms, raising concerns about censorship.
And in Thailand, a new law that took effect this month allows authorities to force online service providers and social media platforms to remove content in as little as 24 hours without a court order.
Digital rights group Access Now and Article 19 said in a statement that the short time frame for removal was “draconian”, and “puts unreasonable time pressure on platforms to respond, pushing them to err on the side of caution”.
Thai authorities say the new rules are necessary for national security and “public safety” purposes.
Developing the Asian market for social media
Settled Asian nations form a huge market for social media platforms.
There are more than 400 million Facebook users in India, and almost 500 million for YouTube. Indonesia has approximately 176 million Facebook users and approximately 139 million YouTube users.
Crackdowns on online content — which have accelerated during the pandemic to curb disinformation — are an attempt by Asian governments to crack down on big tech companies, according to SafeNet’s Juniarto.
“With upcoming elections in some countries, we can expect to see more online restrictions,” he said.
“For platforms, this is a huge and growing market, so they have to think about how to handle these new regulations and greater government control.”
Meta, Facebook’s parent company, and Alphabet’s YouTube did not respond to requests for comment on the new law.
Company officials previously told Reuters they were concerned about compliance and possible government overreach in online content.
In Vietnam, officials are “obviously getting tougher” with the new rules, said Trinh Thi Nhung, Mr Thuan’s wife.
She has been told to limit her social media posts about her husband, and she and her family are being monitored online and offline, she said.
“I feel very worried about this,” said Ms. Nhung, who sells honey for a living.
Vietnamese authorities said they found more than 100 posts posted by Mr Thuan on two Facebook accounts, more than two dozen of which were “against the country.”
Ms Nhung said authorities had not yet been able to prove the Facebook account cited in the allegations belonged to her, and maintained that her husband was innocent.
“I am very sad but I do not regret his actions,” she said, adding that it was difficult for her and her seven-year-old daughter to be separated from Mr Thuan.
“I will always support him because I believe in him and am proud of him.”