Vietnam is among the worst countries for respecting internet freedom, according to a study by Freedom House, a New York-based non-profit organization funded mainly by the U.S. government.
On Oct. 18 it published its ‘Freedom on the Net 2022’ report which surveyed internet standards in 70 countries.
Vietnam scored 22 on its 100-point scale, with 100 being most free and zero least free. It received 12 points in the ‘obstacles to access’ category, 6 points for ‘limits of content’ and 4 points for ‘violations of user rights. The country’s ranking was unchanged from last year, above only Cuba (20), Iran (16), Myanmar (12) and China (10).
Vietnam was one rank below Russia, which plunged down the list from last year because of war in Ukraine and the controls it has imposed to stop unwelcome truths about the conflict being known. With the Putin government censoring news about the invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s Internet Freedom Index rank dropped to sixth from bottom scoring 23 points from 30 in 2021.
Vietnam likely to remain ‘at a standstill’ on internet freedom
Vietnam’s lack of movement down the rankings may not be a sign that the situation is likely to improve.
“In terms of scores, Vietnam is indeed at a standstill, but there are many signs that the government is increasingly controlling the internet, censoring online content more strictly, jailing and applying administrative fines more people with a higher penalty,” Trinh Huu Long, Editor-in-Chief of Legal Initiative Magazine, who contributed to Freedom House’s report, told RFA.
“The Vietnamese government also collects citizens’ online data on a larger scale, and is increasingly forcing foreign tech companies like Facebook and Google to comply with government requirements.”
China unlikely to rise from bottom ranking
Long said Vietnam’s ranking is unlikely to fall as low as China. Freedom House said conditions for internet users there remain “profoundly oppressive” particularly with authorities censoring social media posts critical of Beijing’s COVID lockdowns in recent months.
“Ordinary users continued to face severe legal and extralegal repercussions for activities like sharing news stories, talking about their religious beliefs, or communicating with family members and others overseas. Separately, authorities yielded their immense power over the tech industry through new legislation, regulatory investigations, and app store removals for alleged privacy violations,” the report said.
Hanoi follows Beijing’s digital dictatorship model
As for Vietnam, while Freedom House said it did not disrupt connectivity it said authorities continued to order social media companies to remove content and “imposed draconian criminal sentences for online expression.”
The organization said Vietnamese authorities have set up an effective content-filtering system with censorship often targeting popular blogs or websites with many followers, as well as content deemed threatening to the rule of the Communist Party. That includes discussing social unrest or dissent, advocating for human rights and democracy, and criticizing the government’s response to border disputes and territorial spats with China over the South China Sea.
Access to international websites such as Human Rights Watch, the Vietnamese edition of Radio Free Asia and the BBC were unstable and unpredictable, it said.
Vietnam “is following China’s digital dictatorship model, although it is still far from achieving the capacity to control the internet like China,” said Legal Initiative Magazine’s Long.
Human Rights Council membership won’t help
Questioned about what ordinary people and activists can do to make the government lift internet restrictions in the near future, especially as Vietnam has just been elected to the UN Human Rights Council, he said:
“The Human Rights Council is unfortunately not a strong enough mechanism to pressure the Vietnamese government to do something substantive [for] human rights. Vietnam’s election even legitimizes what the government has been doing.”
“Activists can continue to do what they are doing, I think that is good and necessary, but if it is a goal to push the government to lift some internet restrictions, I am afraid that is too far away.”
The ‘Freedom on the Net’ report said, although no cyberattacks against human rights defenders and media websites were publicly disclosed during the survey period, the previous reports suggest the government and related departments are likely to have continued to use this tactic.
“The best way to improve the situation is to gradually raise the security consciousness of internet users, so that they will understand for themselves what their privacy means,” said an internet security expert in Vietnam, who declined to be named for security reasons.
“If everyone knows how to protect their own privacy space well, they will be able to promote internet freedom on their own.”
Vietnam is one of at least 55 governments worldwide to adopt a policy of investigating, arresting and convicting people who post their opinions on social media. Since the beginning of the year, at least 40 activists and Facebook users have been arrested or convicted, most of them imprisoned on vague charges such as “conducting anti-state propaganda” or “abusing democratic freedom.”
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