Vietnam set to tighten clamps on Facebook

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HANOI (Reuters) – A struggle over internet laws in Vietnam is pitting a government keen on maintaining tight control against US technology companies trying to fight off onerous new rules – with the country’s online dissidents among the biggest losers.

The latest conflict centres on new cybersecurity legislation set for a vote by Vietnamese lawmakers later this month. It aims to impose new legal requirements on internet companies, and hardens policing of online dissent.

Facebook, Google and other global companies are pushing back hard against provisions that would require them to store data on Vietnamese users locally and open offices in the country. But they have not taken the same tough stance on parts of the proposed law that would bolster the government’s crackdown on online political activism.

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Vietnam offers a case study in the conflicting pressures the likes of Facebook and Google confront when operating in countries with repressive governments. It also shows how authoritarian regimes try to walk a line in controlling online information and suppressing political activism without crippling the digital economy.

Such tensions are playing out across Southeast Asia, where the enormous popularity of Facebook and Google has created lucrative business opportunities and outlets for political dissent. With that, though, has come both government censorship and a way to get propaganda to large audiences efficiently.

The region is particularly important for Facebook and Google because most Internet users in China are blocked from accessing them.

An industry group called the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC) is leading efforts to soften the proposed cyber law in Vietnam. Jeff Paine, managing director of the AIC, said he and others were able to raise concerns about the law directly with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and other top government officials when they visited Singapore last month.

The discussions took place as part of a seminar about internet issues that included academics, industry officials and the high-level Vietnamese delegation, according to Paine. He said there was “a healthy dialogue” that focused mostly on how Vietnam can leverage the next stages of the digital revolution.

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But he said there was no discussion of content restrictions.

The Vietnamese government did not respond to a request from Reuters for comment for this article.

Political activists in Vietnam rely on social media to rally support, and the new cyber law comes on the heels of an April letter from more than 50 rights groups and activists to Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg accusing the company of working too closely with the Vietnamese government to stifle dissent.

Facebook and Google say they have to abide by local laws in the countries where they operate.

Facebook’s latest “transparency report,” shows that in the second half of last year, the company began blocking content in Vietnam for violations of local law for the first time.

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