When security forces raided the village of Dong Tam early last year, Vietnamese blogger Bui Thi Minh Hang livestreamed an interview with a woman whose 3-year-old child was exposed to tear gas.
Hang used social media to report on the raid — part of a longstanding land dispute. But the blogger's posts were quickly removed from Facebook and YouTube and a few hours later, she was arrested. Hang was detained for eight hours and questioned about her posts.
The arrest wasn't a first for Hang, who had served three years in prison for "causing public disorder." But along with the arrest, Hang lost access to her social media accounts.
"I was locked out of [Facebook] on and off for a total of nine months and any sub-accounts I created were shut down," Hang told VOA. The blogger said her posts that were deleted over the past two years were critical of the government or about arrests.
Facebook notices sent to Hang and viewed by VOA say that she "violated community standards." The blogger appealed but says she has not heard back from Facebook.
Hang is one of several Vietnamese social media users including journalists, activists and bloggers who told VOA they have had posts removed or accounts locked, amid increasing online censorship in Vietnam.
Amnesty International has described Facebook and YouTube as "hunting grounds for censors, military cyber-troops and state-sponsored trolls." In a report last month, the rights organization said the platforms are "increasingly complicit" with the government in repressing free speech online.
Vietnam's Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected the report and said foreign businesses are allowed to operate in the country "on the basis of compliance with Vietnamese laws." Its Ministry of Information and Communications said last month that authorities remove posts that are illegal or are spreading propaganda.
The platforms say they are bound by local laws and their own policies to remove or investigate content deemed illegal.
Online freedoms restricted
Vietnam has a poor media freedom record, ranking 175 out of 180 countries, where 1 is the most free, according to the Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters Without Borders. In an environment with limited access to independent news, freedom of expression flourished on Facebook and YouTube.
Facebook is the most popular platform in Vietnam with 65 million users, the world's seventh largest number of users, and one of Facebook's biggest markets in Asia, according to figures from market data firm Statista.
Blogger Doan Bao Chau said the presence of social media, especially Facebook, plays an important role in a country that does not have a free press.
Truong Chau Huu Danh, a journalist who worked for state-run newspapers including Lao Dong and who has nearly 168,000 Facebook followers, agreed, saying, "Since the day Facebook was introduced to Vietnam, people's awareness has increased significantly."
But more recently, Amnesty International says, authorities have cracked down on online comment seen "as an existential threat to the regime."
Having posts removed is common in Vietnam, said the blogger, Chau. "Many of my friends have had their posts removed from Facebook and even had their accounts shut down for writing about sensitive issues and criticism against the government."
Danh said posts are often removed without a specific reason: "They just said it violated local law."
The journalist, who helped found the Facebook news page Bao Sach (Clean Newspaper), had posts removed after he used the platform to write about alleged wrongdoing at an infrastructure funding program. Posts on a corruption case in Binh Duong Province, which attracted thousands of followers and interactions, were also removed after being deemed "restricted by local law," Danh said.
"I sent my complaints but they didn't respond or stayed silent," said Danh.
The day after Danh spoke with VOA, police arrested him on charges of "abusing democratic freedoms" over his posts and ordered him detained for three months. If convicted, he faces up to seven years in prison.
Laws regulating internet-based companies appear to have increased compliance requests.
Vietnam's law on cybersecurity, introduced on January 1, 2019, requires platforms to comply with local laws, including opening offices and storing user data within its borders. And a separate decree announced in February allows for operating licenses to be suspended for up to two years if companies violate the law by failing to block content flagged by authorities.
Vietnam's Ministry of Information and Communications on December 13 said that in 2020, Facebook and YouTube had complied with requests to remove thousands of articles it deemed "illegal," and had deleted hundreds of accounts, pages or channels containing "propaganda against the Party and the State."
Transparency reports released by Facebook and Google, which owns YouTube, also show the platforms removed hundreds of posts and videos at the government's request.
Facebook said it "restricted access" in response to reports about content "opposing the Communist Party and the Government of Vietnam" among others. Google says it removes posts deemed to be violating local laws, with most government removal requests related to political content or criticism.
Facebook in April said it was forced to "significantly increase" compliance after it became clear that a failure to do so would lead to Vietnam completely shutting down its services.
A spokesperson for Facebook told VOA that in the past few months the platform has received "additional pressure from the government of Vietnam to restrict more content."
The spokesperson said, "We will do everything we can to ensure that our services remain available so people can continue to express themselves."
When asked for comment, Google directed VOA to its policies. Under its policies, Google says it relies on governments to notify the platform of potential illegal content, and that it "will restrict as appropriate" that content after review.
YouTube users in Vietnam have complained of increasing censorship of content considered sensitive by authorities, according to the Amnesty report.
Independent journalist Vo Van Tao says that state security forces and state-sponsored trolls take advantage of a "technical loophole" by sending reports to Facebook and Google to request content removal.
Vietnam, in late 2017, announced the deployment of Force 47, a 10,000-person cyber-army tasked to combat dissent on the internet. Amnesty says the force's mission is to harass and intimidate human rights activists on social media.
‘Profit over principle'
At a U.S. Congressional hearing in November, Senator Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, accused Facebook of "putting profit over principle" by censoring users in Vietnam, Turkey and Russia at the behest of authoritarian regimes.
Vietnam, with a population of 96 million people, is a lucrative market for Facebook and Google. In 2018, Facebook recorded revenue of nearly $1 billion — almost one-third of its total revenue in Southeast Asia, according to Amnesty's report. Google earned $475 million in Vietnam during the same period, mainly from YouTube advertising.
"They are companies using technology to do business and for them, business people, profit comes first," Chau said. "If they are located anywhere, they would have to compromise with the authorities in that country to operate, and I think they really do not care much about common criteria such as freedom of speech, rights of expression and democracy."
A spokesperson for Facebook told VOA that millions of people rely on the platform to connect with family, friends or 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," the spokesperson said.
Amnesty has urged the U.S. government to take steps to ensure American-based companies respect human rights, in line with the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Principle 11 states that businesses should respect human rights.
"I think the U.S. government, in particular the U.S. Congress, has the ability to set rules or regulations that would make companies change their business models to not hurt human rights and many other things," Nguyen Quang A, a rights activist whose Facebook account has been previously shut down, told VOA.
Amnesty International's deputy regional director for campaigns, Ming Yu Hah, shares a similar view, saying in a press release, "Companies — including Facebook and Google — have a responsibility to respect all human rights wherever they operate."
Tao also said the U.S. government could lean on the platforms to do more to protect rights.
"Facebook is a U.S.-based business, they have to comply with U.S. laws and regulations, so I think if the U.S. government pushes hard and prohibits businesses from infringing on rights to freedom of speech of citizens in countries around the world, not only in the U.S., then it will work," said Tao.
Amnesty has warned that other governments could adopt similar repressive strategies that require technology companies to tighten censorship. Such a move would be a "grave blow to freedom of expression," the rights group said.