Vietnam is adding pressure on foreign internet firms to keep data on local users and be more accessible to the country’s authorities as the country tightens control over online dissent.

A bill that the Southeast Asian country’s Ministry of Public Security offered to legislators this month would require foreign internet services to open representative offices if they have at least 10,000 Vietnamese users or if otherwise requested, official media say.

The bill being reviewed by the National Assembly also calls for making the same foreign companies store data on Vietnamese users in Vietnam, VnExpress International reported Jan. 11. 

Those providers should collect “important data collected or generated from activities in the country,” the report adds.

Legislation on normally free-wheeling foreign internet firms such as Facebook and Google, both popular among Vietnamese, extend the Communist country’s tightening of control over online dissent after initial moves over the past two years, analysts say.

“In recent years Vietnam has witnessed a boom on the Internet and social media plays a very important role in Vietnamese citizens’ lives, and so I think that the government is aware of the importance of social media,” said Trung Nguyen, international relations dean at Ho Chi Minh University of Social Sciences and Humanities.

“That’s the reason why they want to establish their presence, because they want to control social media,” he said.

Trend of tightening

A series of arrests of bloggers in 2016 and 2017 bared the Vietnamese government’s sensitivity to public views about graft and inefficiency among officials, experts believe. 

Those views weigh increasingly on state-to-people relations despite Vietnam’s fast economic growth that has brought perks such as job creation.

In June 2017 the Ministry of Public Security initially proposed the law to give it more power over prohibited content, including cyber-crime, and anti-government activities. 

Owners of Internet cafes had already been asked to install monitoring software and make customers show identification that inspectors could check.

But Vietnam lacks an Internet censorship scheme like its Communist neighbor China. Vietnam does not, for example, routinely filter websites for provocative keywords or block foreign social media networks. Authorities are, however, allowed to stop content that includes “propaganda against the state.”

About 70 percent of Vietnam’s total 92 million people use the internet, with 53 million on social media sites, government figures show. The country lacks widespread, homegrown social media, steering people instead toward foreign-registered services.

Officials also hope the law, now it its fifth draft, will also ease “fake news,” curb internet fraud and stop hacking that has hit 18,000 Vietnam-registered websites including that of the country’s chief airline, said Lam Nguyen, country manager with market research firm IDC. Risk of internet crime is particularly high in Vietnam, he said.

The representative offices required under the law would force foreign Internet firms to pay taxes and follow local regulations that they can avoid now by basing offshore.

Still, a chief mission of the pending legislation is to keep dissent offline, Trung Nguyen said.

“Obviously some things they feel sensitive about,” said Yee Chung Seck, partner with the international law form Baker & McKenzie (Vietnam). “And there’s such a degree of what’s the level of sensitivity — does it somehow cross the line into being abusive.”

Foreign firms expected to comply

Facebook and Google are expected to follow the new law once passed. Neither American internet giant replied to a request for comment for this report, but Vietnam’s Ministry of Information and Communications said Friday it had gotten initial compliance from both.

Google and YouTube have blocked or removed “many harmful and unlawful video clips,” though they still appear on Facebook, the ministry said in a statement. Facebook, it said, has taken down more than 670 of about 5,000 accounts that Vietnam said are “false” or “spread defamation, obscenity and violence.”

Facebook has closed 159 anti-government accounts and Google has removed 4,500 videos containing “bad or toxic content from YouTube,” VnExpress International said.

“The minister stressed that Vietnam was particularly concerned about information that incites anti-government and anti-Party sentiment, violence, or smears the regime, and called for Facebook’s collaboration to deal with the problem,” said the statement, which followed a meeting between the minister and Facebook’s regional regulatory affairs head Damien Yeo.

Internet firms are likely to comply as long as they can avoid hurting overall business.

“I think to a certain degree, probably, if it’s not too much of a cost and not so much disruption to their current business in Vietnam, they would probably try to comply,” Lam Nguyen said.

The Facebook legal affairs official pledged to work with authorities in “dealing with bad information in the global scale,” the ministry website said.

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