A new Vietnamese law will make it illegal for citizens to post news or “general information” online, a restriction that sounds absurdly unenforceable but turns out to be more doable -- and less of an outlier -- than you might expect. According to analysis from the watchdog group Freedom House, Vietnam isn’t alone in its crackdown, even if its methods are particularly severe. Internet censorship is on the rise worldwide, and restrictive, one-party countries such as Vietnam aren’t the only ones legislating what people can post online.
Consider the headlines you’ve seen over the past month alone. In Britain, a proposed filter would automatically block pornography and, according to Internet rights groups, other unwanted content. In Jordan, news Web sites can’t operate without a special license from the government.
“What we've seen in our research is that as more people access the Internet, governments are more and more likely to impose measures that censor certain types of content,” said Sanja Kelly, project director for Freedom House’s "Freedom on the Net," which will publish its 2013 report in September. “One of our findings for this year will be that Internet censorship is on the rise: More Web sites are being blocked than ever before, and an increasing number of countries are passing laws that would restrict certain types of online content.”
Even given that context, Vietnam’s “Decree 72,” a sweeping ban on Internet news and information, seems like a new low. According to Agence France-Presse, the new law will prohibit the use of blogs and social networks for any purpose besides “exchang[ing] personal information.” Even quoting from state-run newspapers or Web sites will be banned.
While some commentators have seen this as meant to protect traditional (read: state-run) media, the reality may be even less altruistic. Vietnam isn’t North Korea -- it belongs to the World Trade Organization, after all, and more than one-third of the country is online -- but it's still one of the world’s last one-party communist states, and one of its harshest media regulators. Journalists are credentialed by the Communist Party, per Freedom House, and most publications are owned and overseen by either the party or the army. Both face severe punishment for printing material that criticizes the state or encourages reform.
In recent years, that type of recrimination has expanded to the Web: According to Reporters Without Borders, 35 bloggers and other online critics have been jailed in Vietnam in 2013, meaning that about 20 percent of the world's imprisoned bloggers this year have been Vietnamese. Some, like Nguyen Tien Trung, a French-educated blogger who was given a seven-year jail sentence, have agitated for democratic reform. Others merely wrote about politically sensitive topics, such as Vietnam’s relationship with China.
This new law is clearly bad news for these bloggers and others like them. But until we know exactly how the government will enforce its new policy, there may be a silver lining: Unlike filters, which operate at the service-provider level, and Web site licensing, which targets specific sites, screening for something as vague as “non-personal information” is something of a logistical nightmare and would likely require human censors to comb through social networks. At the very least, it sounds possible to evade.
But what may be most disturbing, for Web freedom advocates, about Vietnam's law is not how restrictive it is but that it's in some ways actually less impactful than other countries' preexisting censorship regimes. In countries such as China, Iran and Ethiopia, governments have cracked down on software that helps people bypass government filters, Freedom House’s Kelly says. By deploying their own, more sophisticated tools, states are able to essentially force Web users to stay within parts of the Internet that the government can control directly, something that Google CEO Eric Schmidt and others have warned could effectively fracture the Internet. That type of censorship might prove more disruptive, in the long run, than laws like Vietnam’s.
Correction: An earlier version of this post inaccurately reported that 20 percent of the world's imprisoned journalists this year have been Vietnamese. In fact, 20 percent of the world's imprisoned bloggers have been Vietnamese. The post has been corrected.