Vietnam cyber security law to restrict Facebook and Google
Move will force tech groups to store users’ data locally, raising privacy concerns
Protesters opposed to a number of government policies, including the new internet law, air their grievances in Ho Chi Minh City on Sunday © AFP
John Reed in Ho Chi Minh City
Vietnam has approved a restrictive cyber security law that will force Google, Facebook and other tech companies to store their data in-country, which the industry said would hurt investor confidence and stunt the growth of the country’s digital economy. Activists, who staged demonstrations protesting against the law and other issues over the weekend, said the new requirements would allow communist authorities to access private data, spy on users and erode the limited freedoms of speech enjoyed by citizens. The law, which was overwhelmingly approved on Tuesday by Vietnam’s parliament, bans internet users in Vietnam from organising people for “anti-state purposes” and contains sweeping language under which users would not be allowed to “distort history” or “negate the nation’s revolutionary achievements”.
Causing religious offence or discriminating on the basis of gender or race is also prohibited. Foreign tech companies, many of which operate regional hubs in Singapore or Hong Kong, would need to open a Vietnam office and store their data there. They will also be required to provide users’ data to the public security ministry at the government’s request in cases where it believes the law is being violated. The Asia Internet Coalition, an industry group that represents Facebook, Google and other foreign tech companies, warned that the law’s requirements on data localisation and curbs on free speech would undermine Vietnam’s ambitions on gross domestic product and job growth and its push for a tech-led “fourth industrial revolution” in manufacturing.
“These provisions will result in severe limitations on Vietnam’s digital economy, dampening the foreign investment climate and hurting opportunities for local businesses and SMEs to flourish inside and beyond Vietnam,” said Jeff Paine, the group’s managing director. The new law takes effect from the start of next year. Speaking before the parliamentary vote, Vo Trong Viet, chairman of the Vietnamese parliament’s national security and defence committee, said that opening data storage centres in Vietnam would increase tech companies’ costs, but defended it on security grounds. However, opponents of the law warned tech companies of reputational risk if they moved servers and data to Vietnam, saying they would be complicit with government censorship if they did so.
“The government can now ask companies managing the internet or social media to disclose all information about accounts,” said Le Cong Dinh, a political activist. Vietnam’s economy grew 7.4 per cent in the first quarter, one of the fastest rates in south-east Asia. However, its reputation as one of the continent’s most politically stable countries has taken a knock in recent days after thousands of protesters airing a range of grievances took to the streets in several cities on Sunday. This led to a rare climbdown from Vietnam’s government, which agreed to postpone talks until October on plans to open three special economic zones in the country.
Protesters believe these will unduly benefit Chinese investors. But the government went ahead with the vote on the cyber security law, another of the protesters’ targets. Amnesty International this week warned that the law would effectively make foreign tech companies “state surveillance agents” by giving Vietnam’s government the ability to force them to hand over users’ information. Unlike in China, social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter are not banned in Vietnam, giving its people a greater degree of free speech than their Chinese counterparts. However, internet companies face pressure from the government to remove sensitive content. Vietnamese activists wrote an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook chief executive, in April in which they accused the social media platform of co-operating with communist authorities to take down content and suspend accounts. Facebook said at the time it was committed to protecting the rights of its users, but that there were times when it had to remove or restrict content because it violated a particular country’s law.