By: Our Correspondent

Representatives of 26 civil societies, human rights groups and independent media organizations and 34 individual activists have released an open letter to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, accusing the company of using “aggressive practices that could silence human rights activists and citizen journalists in Vietnam.”

The letter charges that a year ago, Facebook’s Head of Global Policy Management, Monika Bickert, met with the Vietnamese Minister of Information and Communications Truong Minh Tuan and “reportedly agreed to coordinate in the monitoring and removal of content.”

Facebook, a social media behemoth with more than a billion daily users, faces similar problems across the globe. Thousands of pages and photos are pulled down constantly for fear of stirring religious antagonism, particularly in Pakistan and Turkey, where Muslims are sensitive, and in India, where Hindus impelled the removal of nearly 5,000 “pieces of content,” according to Facebook’s Government Requests Report website.

In Vietnam, the activists previously often been in contact with Facebook representatives in an effort to make sure that content remained online, according to the letter, and Facebook had been helpful. However, apparently after the 2017 meeting between Bickert and Tuan, “the frequency of takedown has increased and Facebook’s assistance has been unhelpful in restoring accounts and content.”

Facebook’s refusal to allow citizen journalists from posting spiked last week during a major one-day trial of high-profile activists in which six people were ordered jailed for seven to 15 years on charges of subversion, the harshest sentences issued for several years. Nguyễn Văn Đài, 48, a human rights lawyer, was ordered imprisoned for 15 years followed by five years of house arrest.

“Despite the Vietnamese government’s repeated attempts to block Facebook, it has become the number one social media platform in Vietnam with over 55 million users,” according to the letter. “In a society where free speech and media rights are systematically and often violently suppressed, Facebook is a beacon for openness and connectivity. It serves as a platform for independent media and has enabled Vietnamese people to participate in public debates, as these freedoms are severely restricted offline.”

The Vietnamese government, the letter continues, employs a 10,000-strong cyber army “whose sole purpose is to spread misinformation and silence dissent. These state-sponsored trolls — Force 47 — have deftly exploited Facebook’s community policies and purposefully disseminated patently fake news about activists and independent media organizations. There are online groups of government trolls coordinating mass reporting of activist accounts and celebrating their accomplishments when accounts and pages are taken down by Facebook.

The activists’ account is accurate, said David Brown, a former US diplomat who has tracked the decade-long cat and mouse game between Vietnamese censors and dissident bloggers. “Joined by Google and other social media heavyweights, Facebook for several years rejected the Hanoi regime’s demands that it provide access to user data and remove content that Hanoi deemed noxious.

“There seem to be two reasons why, since early in 2017, Facebook shifted to a more accommodative stance. First, insisting that it would not cooperate with Beijing’s censors got Facebook (and Google/You Tube) evicted from the Chinese cybermarket. Vietnam can’t shoulder the cost of building its own ‘Great Firewall,’ but its 6 percent-plus economic growth, year after year, gives Hanoi leverage. Simply put, Vietnam has become a significant profit center for the social media giants, too big a prize to walk away from.”

Brown, a Vietnamese linguist, also confirms the dissident activists’ report that Facebook is quick to take down posts fingered by national censors. “A source I consider very reliable has told me that Facebook’s cooperation with the Vietnamese authorities is not an exception. I understand that it has centralized its takedown service in Singapore and is accommodating requests from a number of Southeast Asian capitals.

“Bloggers who ignore warnings not to repost material that Facebook has removed at Hanoi’s behest are punished by banishment for a day, three days, a week or permanently.”

Facebook reviews the posts that it takes down at national authorities’ behest, Brown says, and sometimes will restore them if they seem unobjectionable by its standards. “However, by then they are stale. “

While the activists said they “appreciate Facebook’s efforts in addressing safety and misinformation concerns online in Vietnam and around the world,” it appears that following the meeting, the problem of account suspension and content takedown has only grown more acute.

The government, according to the letter, has jailed more than 100 bloggers and human rights defenders, as documented by human rights organizations.

While Facebook’s community standards are clearly stated on your website, the takedowns and account suspensions have happened without the affected users being told the reasons for the violation or the specific content that is in violation. We’ve tried to work with Facebook representatives, often alongside digital rights organizations, to address specific incidents. Yet when profiles of activists and citizen journalists are banned from posting or effectively suspended, we are given no explanation–other than the vague ‘violation of standards.’ We find this lack of transparency concerning and unhelpful.

Facebook, they said, “Facebook risks enabling and being complicit in government censorship.” They urged the social media organizaion “to have a direct and open dialogue with local stakeholders.

These are the signatories to the letter:

Sincerely,

Câu Lạc Bộ Nhà Báo Tự Do (Free Journalists Club) | fb.com/caulacbonhabaotudo
Chân Trời Mới Media (New Horizon Media) | fb.com/chantroimoimedia
Dân Oan Dương Nội
(Duong Noi Aggrieved Citizens) | fb.com/trinhbaphuong.trinhba

Defend the Defenders | fb.com/defendthedefenders
Hoang Sa FC | fb.com/hsfcvn (suspended)
Hội Anh Em Dân Chủ (Brotherhood for Democracy) | fb.com/hoianhemdanchu
Hội Giáo Chức Chu Văn An (CVA Teachers Association) | fb.com/hoigiaochucchuvanan
Hội Thánh Tin Lành Mennonite Cộng Đồng | fb.com/tamlinh.tran.188
PT Lao Động Việt (Viet Labor Movement) | fb.com/phongtraolaodongviet
Sài Gòn Báo (Saigon Post) | fb.com/saigonposts
Saigon Broadcasting Television Network | fb.com/SBTNOfficial
Tin Mừng Cho Người Nghèo (Good News For The Poor) | fb.com/tinmungchonguoingheo
Thanh Niên Công Giáo (Catholic Youth) | fb.com/thanhnienconggiao (suspended)
Truyền Thông Thái Hà (Thai Ha Church’s Media) | fb.com/nhathothaiha
Tuổi Trẻ Lòng Nhân Ái (Compassionate Youth) | fb.com/Tuổi-Trẻ-Lòng-Nhân-Ái-955756777816551
Việt Tân | fb.com/viettan

Activists & Citizen Journalists:
Angelina Trang Huynh | fb.com/angelinahuynh2004

Anh Chi | fb.com/nu.pontaultcombault2010
Can Thi Theu | fb.com/profile.php?id=100004583148627
Dang Xuan Dieu | fb.com/TS.DangXuanDieu
Do Thi Minh Hanh | fb.com/tiachopnho.minhhanh
Effy Nguyen | fb.com/boy.zing.14
Emily Page-Le | fb.com/emily.pagele (suspended)
Hoang Tu Duy | fb.com/hoangtuduy71
Huynh Ngoc Chenh | fb.com/ho.lytien.1
La Viet Dung | fb.com/lavietdung
Le Cong Dinh | fb.com/LSLeCongDinh
Le Van Dung | fb.com/AlfonsoVova (suspended)
Paulus Le Son | fb.com/son.vanle85
Ma Tieu Linh | fb.com/profile.php?id=100007923318405
Ngoc Vu | fb.com/ngoc.vu.33821
Nguyen Thuy Hanh | fb.com/Melinh.liberty
Nguyen Chi Tuyen (Anh Chi) | fb.com/N.AnhChi
Nguyen Hoang-Thanh Tam | fb.com/nhttam
Nguyen Thi Kim Lien | fb.com/kimlienmeuykha
Nguyen Thien Nhan | fb.com/nguyen.t.nhan.923
Nguyen Thuy Quynh | fb.com/MotLanDiLaVinhBiet
Nguyen Van Hai | fb.com/dieucayclbnbtdvietnam
Nhan The Hoang | fb.com/culoo.hoang
Pham Minh Hoang | fb.com/phamminh.hoang.351
Pham Thanh | fb.com/profile.php?id=100005584186799
Pham Le Vuong Cac | fb.com/cui.cac
Tran Minh Nhat | fb.com/minhnhat.paultran
Trang Le | fb.com/matbiec1904
Trinh Ba Phuong | fb.com/trinhbaphuong.trinhba
Trinity Hong Thuan | fb.com/trinity.hongthuan
Truc Ho | fb.com/nhacsitrucho
Truong Dung | fb.com/truong.v.dung.73
Tu Anh Tu | fb.com/chutichdangbia
Vo An Don | fb.com/profile.php?id=100008231020747

There’s some flexibility in this dynamic. The threat a digital online economy poses to rulers like Xi also offers a new escape hatch for Asian entrepreneurs. Recent months have seen Japan has be a great beneficiary as the destination of choice for cryptocurrency and blockchain entrepreneurs seeking to relocate from the rigors of business in China.

Today many Asian businesses can relocate freely from one nation to another. They can do this within the region, and even beyond it, as digital-friendly nations like Estonia that allow foreign business the opportunity of e-residency, registering their company in the Eastern European nation, and gaining access to the EU common market.

It need also be recognised there are wider factors at play here. There are enduring issues of generational suspicion. Millennials may be all for innovative industry, others not. By contrast, there are some advantages.  Though many communities across Asia may retain a cultural reticence to displaying great passion in their private lives, business can provide for an outlet in which they can engage with their local community around them freely, and without reserve.

The China Challenge

Xi’s ascent means greater control in the short term in China. It also means a more muscular foreign policy can be expected in Asia.  Neither of these bode well for entrepreneurs in the region. Especially as the tune being played in Beijing will entice other leaders in the region to turn from a free and open private sector, to one where Orwellian oversight of all business is the shot.

Certainly it can’t go overlooked the size and volume of the Chinese market remains enticing. Many native and foreign entrepreneurs identify in the nation of 1.3 billion people the great potential for rapid and diverse growth, and calculate the rewards of doing business in Xi’s China is worth the risks and political instability.

And as Minzer argues in his recent work End of an Era, this present period of CPC has not only undermined but reversed the modest shifts towards a more liberal and democratic society seen under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.

A more liberal-minded future generation of Chinese leadership could not simply pick up where Xi stopped, but would now be required to sail against the headwinds Xi’s era has created. This in tandem to navigating the other emerging challenges like the gender imbalance that will test CPC leadership like never before.

The Promise of New Technology and Communications

Yet, despite the difficult climate there is room for optimism here. The advent of technology like permissionless blockchain will not only allow for new innovation, but place new pressure on authoritarian regimes. Not only will this see agitation for greater civil freedoms among the younger generations, but means denying them would also diminish economic productivity. That’s something today’s CPC can’t afford.

Ultimately, Xi’s leadership extending is aspired to deliver more stability, economic growth at home, and power abroad to China. In the long term it may do just the opposite. Within the Asian region, as citizens the irreversible march forward of technological access, increased education, and greater capacity for free movement of people mean other leaders need identify the cautionary tale unfolding here.

It also is illustrative for nations in Asia that do hold these civil freedoms. An initial reading may suggest they are more embattled, but in practice they capacity to provide a voice here is more enhanced than ever. Beyond the fanfare and satire, in time this may be the real story of Xi’s era.