In June 2018, Vietnam’s National Assembly passed a new cyber security law that has generated much concern for its stringent restrictions on popular social media organizations. Per the law that will go into effect January 1, 2019, tech companies would be compelled to store data about Vietnamese users on servers in-country, a move designed to improve the security of Vietnamese nationals. Vietnam has been historically weak when in it comes to cyber security, and has been ranked among the bottom regionally. According to a 2017 report by the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union Global Cyber Security Index (GCI), Vietnam ranked 101 out of 165 countries in terms of being vulnerable to cyber attacks. The GCI is a survey that measures the commitment of member states to cybersecurity to classify and project development process at the regional and global levels.
There are several critics of the new cyber security law. Such a move – as has been expressed with regards to China’s new cyber laws – can potentially impact economic development and deter foreign investment. Perhaps more alarming, dissenters and even some Vietnamese lawmakers signed petitions and conducted peaceful demonstrations to denounce the new law. At the crux of this protest is the potential for the government to use this law in order to stifle human rights and privacy concerns such as online freedoms of speech and expression. According to the law, Vietnam’s authorities will have the discretion to determine when expression might be identified as “illegal” and restricted. It bans Internet users in Vietnam from organizing to conduct activities for “anti-state purposes” or to be allowed to distort the nation’s history. Unsurprisingly, Amnesty International has underscored how the law could empower the government to monitor everything people say online.
Certainly, the new law’s provisions echoes recent aggressive moves conducted by the Europe Union’s General Data Protections Regulation (GDPR) and China’s cyber security law that dictate how foreign organizations can operate in their respective region’s and how citizen information will be handled, processed, stored, and secured. China in particular has been cited as a pervasive presence in monitoring, censoring, and restricting information and information dissemination. Given that Vietnam’s law would ban Internet users in Vietnam from organizing for “anti-state purposes” and contains text prohibiting users from “distorting history” or “negating the nation’s achievements,” the origin’s of such concerns are understandable. Vietnam has been a known censor of the Internet and certainly the new cyber security law potentially provides more legal justification to root out what it deems questionable behavior.
Many of the critics of the law says that it focuses on the restrictive nature of online speech and freedoms. Yet in a time when “fake news” and “influence operations” are becoming more prevalent, it is understandable how governments are trying to get ahead of such activities. Vietnam is in the process of developing its own social media and Internet platforms, as a way decreasing reliance on foreign organizations like Facebook as well as to increase its ability to fight cyber crime and hostile content. Facebook has recently come under attack for facilitating the spread of fake news and even restricting some political content. In a time when some foreign global companies have been accused with being closely tied with their governments (e.g., telecommunications, computer security), the ability to compel these organizations activities in a sovereign state seems a practical approach.
The bottom line is that states are finding their ways in the information space which the Internet and cyberspace supports. While actual attacks designed to disrupt, deny, degrade, manipulate, or destroy information systems and/or the information that traverses them is a cut-and-dry issue, the simple dissemination of controversial content is much harder, especially for democratic states. While a cornerstone of democratic principles, exploitation of freedom of speech and freedom of expression by nation states to instigate political debate and conflict among a targeted audience is becoming more prevalent, and can be potentially consequential. Vietnam has opted to embrace what China, and to a lesser extent the GDPR, has elected.
Like many laws, the more authorities a government possesses, the more they can be used for both altruistic as well as selfish motives, depending on the intent. Time will ultimately bear out if these laws are further instruments of state control, tools that help mitigate threats, or a combination of both. Likely it will be the latter.
This is a guest post by Emilio Iasiello