HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM - Vietnam’s demand that international social media firms use artificial intelligence to identify and remove "toxic" online content is part of an ever expanding and alarming campaign to pressure overseas platforms to suppress freedom of speech in the country, rights groups, experts and activists say.
Vietnam is a lucrative market for overseas social media platforms. Of the country’s population of nearly 100 million there are 75.6 million Facebook users, according to Singapore-based research firm Data Reportal. And since Vietnamese authorities have rolled out tighter restrictions on online content and ordered social media firms to remove content the government deems anti-state, social media sites have largely complied with government demands to silence online critiques of the government, experts and rights groups told VOA.
"Toxic" is a term used broadly to refer to online content which the state deems to be false, violent, offensive, or anti-state, according to local media reports.
During a mid-year review conference on June 30, Vietnam's Information Ministry ordered international tech firms to use artificial intelligence to find and remove so-called toxic content automatically, according to a report from state-run broadcaster Vietnam Television. Details have not been revealed on how or when companies must comply with the new order.
Le Quang Tu Do, the head of the Authority of Broadcasting and Electronic Information, had noted during an April 6 news conference that Vietnamese authorities have economic, technical and diplomatic tools to act against international platforms, according to a local media report. According to the report he said the government could cut off social platforms from advertisers, banks, and e-commerce, block domains and servers, and advise the public to cease using platforms with toxic content.
"The point of these measures is for international platforms without offices in Vietnam, like Facebook and YouTube, to abide by the law," Do said.
Pat de Brun, Amnesty International’s deputy director of Amnesty Tech, told VOA the latest demand is consistent with Vietnam’s yearslong strategy to increase pressure on social media companies. De Brun said it is the government’s broad definition of what is toxic, rather than use of artificial intelligence, that is of most human rights concern because it silences speech that can include criticism of government and policies.
"Vietnamese authorities have used exceptionally broad categories to determine content that they find inappropriate and which they seek to censor. … Very, very often this content is protected speech under international human rights law," de Brun said. "It's really alarming to see that these companies have relented in the face of this pressure again and again."
During the first half of this year, Facebook removed 2,549 posts, YouTube removed 6,101 videos, and TikTok took down 415 links, according to an Information Ministry statement.
Nguyen Khac Giang, a research fellow at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, told VOA that heightened online censorship has been led by the conservative faction within Vietnam’s Communist Party, which gained power in 2016.
Nguyen Phu Trong was elected as general secretary in 2016, putting a conservative in the top position within the one-party state. Along with Trong, other conservative-minded leaders rose within government the same year, pushing out reformists, Giang said. Efforts to control the online sphere led to 2018's Law on Cybersecurity, which expands government control of online content and attempts to localize user data in Vietnam. The government also established Force 47 in 2017, a military unit with reportedly 10,000 members assigned to monitor online space.
On July 19, local media reported that the information ministry proposed taking away the internet access of people who commit violations online especially via livestream on social media sites.
Activists often see their posts removed, lose access to their accounts, and the government also arrests Vietnamese bloggers, journalists, and critics living in the country for their online speech. They are often charged under Article 117 of Vietnam’s Criminal Code, which criminalizes "making, storing, distributing or disseminating information, documents and items against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam."
According to The 88 Project, a U.S.-based human rights group, 191 activists are in jail in Vietnam, many of whom have been arrested for online advocacy and charged under Article 117.
"If you look at the way that social media is controlled in Vietnam, it is very starkly contrasted with what happened before 2016," Giang said. "What we are seeing now is only a signal of what we've been seeing for a long time."
Giang said the government order is a tool to pressure social media companies to use artificial intelligence to limit content, but he warned that online censorship and limits on public discussion could cause political instability by eliminating a channel for public feedback.
"The story here is that they want the social media platforms to take more responsibility for whatever happens on social media in Vietnam," Giang said. "If they don't allow people to report on wrongdoings … how can the [government] know about it?"
Vietnamese singer and dissident Do Nguyen Mai Khoi, now living in the United States, has been contacting Facebook since 2018 for activists who have lost accounts or had posts censored, or are the victims of coordinated online attacks by pro-government Facebook users. Although she has received some help from the company in the past, responses to her requests have become more infrequent.
"[Facebook] should use their leverage," she added. "If Vietnam closed Facebook, everyone would get angry and there’d be a big wave of revolution or protests."
Representatives of Meta Platforms Inc., Facebook's parent company, did not respond to VOA requests for comment.
Vietnam is also a top concern in the region for the harsh punishment of online speech, Dhevy Sivaprakasam, Asia Pacific policy counsel at Access Now, a nonprofit defending digital rights, said.
"I think it's one of the most egregious examples of persecution on the online space," she said.