The never-ending adventures of a travel writer in Vietnam, Cambodia, New Zealand and throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Google, Facebook and Vietnam’s War on Free Speech: The Latest Today

As previously reported, Vietnam has announced a new draft decree aimed to force foreign internet companies (particularly Google and Facebook, according to government officials) to open local offices in Vietnam, pay state tax, censor user content and provide private user information to the government. The decree will be voted on in June.

Yesterday I spoke to a rep from Google’s Singapore office who wished to alleviate growing concerns over the decree. She said that Google reps had indeed flown to Vietnam a year ago to discuss issues of concern. However, she said that Google only just learned about the new Decree two weeks ago (along with the rest of us), so obviously the Decree was not a point of discussion at their previous meeting. Thus, she said, statements in Vietnam state media about Google agreeing to the demands in the decree were merely speculations of local Vietnamese company owners, and were unfounded.

The Google rep went on to say that Google’s impression is that the Vietnam government has not reached a consensus on the issues outlined in the decree (as described by the Vietnamese media), and that these details are still under discussion within the government. At this time, she told me, Google is taking a ‘wait and see’ approach. She assured me that whatever Google might do in the future—it would do so with complete transparency to the public.

So where does this leave us? 

In the meantime, events of the last week have continued to devolve.

On April 12, in the National Assembly Standing Committee Meeting, officials resolved to tighten restriction on unlicensed print publishing, stating that “Many cases of illegal printing have had a negative impact on the country's political and social development.”

On April 18, Hanoi placed new restrictions on event organizers and stage performers, clamping down on all unlicensed performances and departures from government-approved scripts. Already the law requires prior government approval of all schedules, speeches, song lists and lyrics, etc. for public events.

In addition to this the Vietnam government continues to arrest bloggers and journalists. On Monday, the Vietnam government charged three bloggers; Nguyen Van Hai, Phan Thanh Hai and Ta Phong Tan with “propaganda against the state,” a charge that caries up to 20 years in prison. The bloggers belong to the “Free Journalists Club,” a rare, independent media organization outlawed by the government. Nguyen Hoang Hai (also known as Dieu Cay), is also a member of the group and has been in prison since 2008. His precise location and condition is currently unknown. The imprisoned journalists are just the latest of dozens of cases where bloggers have been sent to prison and re-education camps, some without even a mock trial.

So what will happen in June?

The Ministry of Information’s new ‘Anti-Google & Facebook Decree” will be passed into law in June. The Vietnam government has nothing to lose by passing the law. Once signed, then it will be left to the Ministry of Information to figure out the implementation later.

The Facebook ban will become official. The government began blocking Facebook in late 2009 after issuing a secret memo to ISPs, which was leaked to the public just prior to its implementation. However, there was never an ‘official,’ public Facebook ban. Now there will be, and if the government possesses a more effective mechanism to block Facebook, it will use it.

Vietnam will not block Google Search. Both the government and commercial interests depend on Google Search as much as the rest of us. They won’t go this far, yet.

Vietnam will block secondary Google services. As much as some of us may like YouTube, Google+, Blogger or other Google services, these are neither important to the function of the government, nor to the Vietnam economy. Some or all of these services will be blocked, particularly due to content hosted which is objectionable to the communist government. This will not be the first time either. The government has blocked Google News Search in the past, and selectively blocks Google Blogger accounts already.

After this happens, the next question is, what will Google and Facebook do about it, if anything at all?

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