‘Force 47’, thought to be 10,000-strong, seen as government’s online enforcers as new cybercrime law takes effect.
US-based companies Facebook and YouTube are allowing themselves to become tools of Vietnam’s “industrial-scale” attempt to censor information and harass government critics, in an “alarming sign” of how technology giants increasingly operate in repressive countries, Amnesty International said.
In a report published on Tuesday, Amnesty also said that the Vietnamese government’s efforts to silence dissent have resulted in the imprisonment of a “record number” of activists who are serving jail time for their online work.
To date, there are about 170 “prisoners of conscience” in the country, 69 of them because of the “criminalisation” of their online work, the human rights group said.
The 78-page Amnesty report documents the “systematic repression” of peaceful online expression in the Southeast Asian country, including the widespread “geo-blocking” of content seen as critical of the authorities.
Groups affiliated with the government are also accused of using the same online platform to target and harass users into silence and fear including, Force 47, a 10,000-strong battalion of “cyber-armies” that helps enforce the country’s laws on online behaviour.
The Amnesty report is based on dozens of interviews with human rights defenders and activists, including former prisoners of conscience, lawyers, journalists and writers, in addition to information provided by Facebook and Google.
“In the last decade, the right to freedom of expression flourished on Facebook and YouTube in Vietnam. More recently, however, authorities began focusing on peaceful online expression as an existential threat to the regime,” said Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty Deputy Regional Director for Campaigns.
“Today these platforms have become hunting grounds for censors, military cyber-troops and state-sponsored trolls. The platforms themselves are not merely letting it happen – they are increasingly complicit.”
Last April, for example, after Facebook announced its new policy regarding compliance with local laws, Vietnamese land rights activists Trinh Ba Phuong and Trinh Ba Tu reported that all the content they had shared about “land grabbing” in Dong Tam had suddenly disappeared from their timeline without notification.
Two months later, the two were arrested and charged with “making, storing, distributing or disseminating information, documents and items against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam”.
They are currently in detention and their Facebook accounts have disappeared since their arrests, “under unknown circumstances”, Amnesty said.
In another incident in May, Nguyen Van Trang, a pro-democracy activist now seeking asylum in Thailand, said that Facebook notified him that one of his posts had been limited citing “local legal restrictions” in Vietnam.
Since then, Facebook has blocked every piece of content he has tried to post containing the names of senior members of Vietnam’s Communist Party.
Amnesty pointed out that in some cases, users see their content censored under “vaguely worded” laws, including offences such as “abusing democratic freedoms” under Vietnam’s Criminal Code.
The rights watchdog says these laws are “inconsistent” with Vietnam’s obligations under international human rights law.
“I have lost faith in Facebook, so I don’t post much anymore,” Nguyen Van Trang said, adding that he has had a similar experience on YouTube, although he has been given the option to appeal.
“Imagine if you spent years and years growing your Facebook account, posting and writing about your passions for democracy, but then in one easy act, Facebook just erases all the work you have done over the years.”
Facebook is the most popular and profitable platform in Vietnam, according to Amnesty.
In 2018, Facebook’s income from Vietnam neared $1bn – almost one-third of all its revenue from Southeast Asia.
Meanwhile, Google, which owns YouTube, raked in $475m during the same period, mainly from online advertising, the human rights group said.
“The size of these profits underlines the importance for Facebook and Google of maintaining market access in Vietnam,” Amnesty noted.
Nearly 40 percent of Facebook’s daily active users and nearly 43 percent of its daily monthly users were in the Asia Pacific, according to Facebook’s most recent earnings report, although at $3.67 revenue per user was a fraction of the amount in North America and Europe.
Amnesty said the tech giants have a responsibility to respect all human rights wherever they operate.
“They should respect the right to freedom of expression in their content moderation decisions globally, regardless of local laws that muzzle freedom of expression,” it added, as it called for an overhaul of content moderation policies that align with international human rights standards.
In October, Facebook launched an oversight body to address the issue of censorship, but Amnesty says the guidelines “will prevent it from reviewing the company’s censorship actions pursuant to local law” in countries such as Vietnam.
In response, a Facebook spokesperson said, “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.”
“Over the past few months, we’ve faced additional pressure from the government of Vietnam to restrict more content, however, we will do everything we can to ensure that our services remain available so people can continue to express themselves,” the statement added, noting that millions of Vietnamese rely on the social media platform every day.
YouTube says it abides with the local laws of each country.
In a separate statement to Al Jazeera, YouTube’s parent company Google said that it has no further comment on the matter.
Google has outlined a policy regarding requests for removal of online content, and it relies on governments to officially notify them of those content considered as prohibited. The requests go through a review before approval and are recorded for transparency.
Meanwhile, Amnesty also appealed directly to the Vietnamese government to refrain from “weaponising” the social media platforms and stop punishing people for exercising their right to freedom of expression.