23 Apr 2020

Facebook bows to Vietnam pressure to censor posts

Earlier this week, news broke that Facebook had succumbed to pressure in Vietnam to censor posts deemed “anti-state” in the country after two state telecommunications firms seriously impeded traffic to its site by taking its servers offline.

Reuters first reported the story, quoting two anonymous sources who work for Facebook.This appears to be how it happened:


  • From mid-February to early April 2020: two state-owned telecommunications companies take Facebook’s servers offline so that many users can't access the site or it is extremely slow. Vietnamese state media blame it on repairs to undersea cables, but other websites are accessible as normal.
  • Early April, Facebook agrees to censor anti-state posts, and access to the site returns to normal.
  • April: Facebook admits it had agreed to block access to some posts “it deemed illegal.”
  • Shortly afterwards, Amnesty International calls it a dangerous precedent: ‘Governments around the world will see this as an open invitation to enlist Facebook in the service of state censorship’

The two Internet Service providers mentioned in the report, Viettel and Vietnam Posts and Telecommunications Group (VNPT), carry the majority of internet traffic in Vietnam. Viettel, operated by the Ministry of Defence Is the dominant provider. VNPT is owned by the Vietnamese government and owns Vinaphone, the country’s second-largest mobile phone network.

Vietnam is an authoritarian state that has no free media, thus websites such as Facebook are extremely important platforms for free speech and communication. Vietnamese human rights activist Vu Quoc Ngu explains

"For Vietnamese people, Facebook is a social network for communication and business and many rely on it for selling their goods. As for Vietnamese activists, Facebook is a channel for gaining information and disseminating their opinions and advocacy.

Given the fact that offline criticism is banned in Vietnam while the official media is being controlled by the ruling communist party, Facebook is the most important platform for Vietnamese activists in the country with more than 40 million users, far from other social networks such as Twitter and Zalo."


Facebook’s response was shocking in its cravenness – basically an admission that to protect their considerable business interests in Vietnam they are willing to compromise on the right to free speech.


 “We believe freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, and work hard to protect and defend this important civil liberty around the world ...

“However, we have taken this action to ensure our services remain available and usable for millions of people in Vietnam, who rely on them every day”.

The Vietnam market is just too lucrative for Facebook. Al Jazeera reported that revenue from advertising for Facebook and Google in 2018 in Vietnam came to $385 million.

The social media company is extremely popular in Vietnam with tens of millions of users and is also a common vehicle for activists to publish material. According to Amnesty International 10% of Vietnam’s prisoners of conscience are in jail because of something they have done on Facebook.

For example, on the same day that the news broke Facebook had agreed to the censorship, a music teacher, Nguyen Nang Tinh, had his 11-year sentence upheld by an appeals court in the central Vietnamese province of Nghe An for criticizing the government on Facebook.   

In previous years, other facebookers who have been convicted include: Nguyen Nang Tinh, Dinh Thi Thu Thuy, Huynh Thi To Nga, Huynh Minh Tam, Nguyen Van Nghiem and Nguyen Duc Quoc Vuong.

And this is not the first time that Facebook has censored posts in Vietnam.

Reuters reported that in 2018, the company “increased the amount of content it restricted access to in Vietnam by over 500% in the last half of 2018.” An official also said at the time that Facebook was agreeing to more government requests for censorship – up from 30% to 70 to 75% in 2018.

But clearly not enough as this most recent action proves

The country has cemented its control over internet firms with a new Cybersecurity Law that came into effect January 2019. That effectively forces companies like Facebook to hand over information on users and censor posts.

What can companies like Facebook do under this kind of pressure?

Of particular concern is that Facebook did not openly admit it was censoring posts until contacted by Reuters. It is also not clear whether Facebook reported its censorship to the US government.

The Santa Clara Principles on transparency and accountability in content moderation have been proposed to offer minimum standards – or a starting point for Internet companies to support the right to free expression when they remove posts or accounts. They are:

  • Publish the all statistics on posts and accounts removed – and give a detailed breakdown of this data
  • Give every user affected a reason for the action.
  • And give them a meaningful and timely way for them to appeal that decision.