Vietnamese authorities announced last week the results of a monthslong investigation into TikTok, finding that the social media platform’s censorship processes failed to filter out content that violates Vietnamese laws.
The probe, which started in May after authorities accused the app of hosting “toxic” content that “poses a threat to the country’s youth, culture and tradition” and threatened a ban, concluded with recommendations for how TikTok can step up its protection of children—such as removing all accounts of users below 13 years old and setting a time limit for users under 18.
In response to the findings, TikTok said that it would work with Vietnamese authorities to address their concerns, adding that the company would also continue to “pro-actively implement public education initiatives to raise awareness of online safety.”
The Vietnamese government’s emphasis on youth safety comes amid heightened efforts to protect children from exploitation on the internet—a problem that the media and government in Vietnam have become increasingly concerned about.
But seamlessly weaved into the advocacy for online child safety are also calls for greater censorship tools that can and almost certainly will be used to crack down on “anti-state” content—what experts say is a familiar pattern of the Vietnamese government conflating the tackling of legitimate cybersecurity concerns with stamping out political dissent. And so far, such online censorship has been quietly accepted by tech giants desperate to continue operating in the country’s lucrative market, as freedom of expression and the state of Vietnam’s democracy continues to decline.
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Last year, authorities similarly announced that platforms like Facebook and Google should remove content that the government deemed harmful to children—along with other content that violates Vietnamese law, a spokesperson of the social affairs ministry said. Months later, when authorities were putting together a blacklist of “harmful” websites and social media accounts to be barred from getting advertising revenue, the information ministry warned companies not to place ads where the content is “untrue, obscene, contrary to traditions, sensational, or clickbait.”
Embedded in these broad guidelines to create a safer cyberspace are expectations for social media companies to scrub content deemed politically inconvenient to the country’s one-party government off the Vietnamese web. In 2021, five journalists were jailed for sharing Facebook posts which were deemed to “infringe upon the interests of the state.” Meanwhile, “false” content—which social media platforms in Vietnam are required to take down within 24 hours—are commonly assessed by how critical they are of the state.
“I think it’s a very smart strategy by the government,” says Nguyen Khac Giang, a visiting fellow in the Vietnam studies program at Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. “The combination of both legitimate and vague concerns would make the targeting of platforms like TikTok very effective and very convincing.”
With child safety foregrounded as the authorities’ main concern, says Giang, “it’s very easy for the government to argue against critics [who say] they are trying to tighten the freedom of speech in Vietnam.”
To be sure, youth cybersecurity is a real problem in Vietnam. Since 2020—when Vietnam was ranked near the bottom in a child online safety index survey that assessed 30 countries’ “cyber risks, disciplined digital use, digital competency, guidance and education, social infrastructure, and connectivity”—authorities have stepped up efforts to educate youth on keeping safe while using social media. In 2021, Vietnam’s nationwide child online protection program, which set out to protect children from online exploitation and abuse, was lauded by UNICEF. Child safety continues to be an area of focus outlined by the government when talking about regulating the internet.
But the way in which politically motivated censorship has been wrapped into the government’s concerns about user safety and privacy on social media platforms is a familiar tactic that goes back decades, observers say. Authorities have long harped on the problem of “toxic” online content, which in the 1990s and 2000s was more closely associated with pornograpy.
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“The stated need to censor pornographic content, however, masked a greater concern of the powers that be,” noted a 2022 report published by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, “and that was that the Internet would open the floodgates for anti-government propaganda and facilitate a freer flow of information, which would end up posing major threats to the Communist Party.”
Authorities have stepped up their demands on social media platforms since a controversial cybersecurity law took effect in 2019, granting the government sweeping power to censor anti-state content and obtain user data from tech companies. This rigorous policing of social media was, according to then-Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, a way to “create social consensus”—even if it meant forcefully kicking critics out of cyberspaces and slapping them with criminal charges.
Vietnam’s campaign to attain control over online discourse has largely succeeded, with the world’s tech giants putting up little resistance to the government’s diminishment of civil liberties. Last week, Vietnamese authorities said that YouTube, TikTok, and Facebook had removed almost 800 posts, including those with “false and negative” messages about the party, over a one-month period between August and September.
Amnesty International noted in 2020 that tech giants were “increasingly complicit” in Vietnam’s political censorship. The country of almost 100 million, a majority of whom are young and tech-savvy, has stood out to social media companies as one of the most potentially lucrative markets. Facebook, which routinely complies with the government’s take down requests, generates nearly $1 billion in revenue from Vietnam, where it has 60 million users.
Social media companies, according to Giang, would “rather sacrifice whatever principles they might have in terms of freedom of speech [than stop] operating in [Vietnam’s] vastly growing market.”