According to Decree 72, effective on 1 September, blogs and social websites will no longer be allowed to carry personal information to protect national security and ethnic and religious harmony. What’s more, the one-party regime also requires domestic Internet companies to have data servers inside Vietnam. Foreign companies are expected to receive guidelines soon.
Freedom Online Coalition, a human rights organisation committed to internet freedom, said it was deeply concerned by the announcement, which will impose further restrictions on the way internet is accessed and used in Vietnam.
“For example, Decree 72 restricts online information flow and limits the sharing of certain types of news and other speech,” Freedom Online Coalition said in a statement. “Decree 72 appears to be inconsistent with Vietnam’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as its commitments under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
The US embassy also criticised teh decision by Vietnam’s one-party regime. “We are deeply concerned by the decree’s provisions that appear to limit the types of information individuals can share via personal social media accounts and on websites,” according to a statement on the embassy website. “In addition, this decree will limit the development of Vietnam’s budding IT sector by hampering domestic innovation and deterring foreign investment.”
At present, Vietnam is seeing massive internet growth with 34 per cent of its 90 million people online and 66 per cent of users going online every day. Over 9 per cent of the users are on social networks and Vietnam is Facebook’s fastest growing market, with penetration having risen 36 per cent in just six months.
According to PWC’s latest media and entertainment report, consumers spent about US$734 million on internet access (both broadband and mobile) in 2012 and this is expected to grow to $889 million. Internet advertising in Vietnam was worth US$12 million in 2012 and it's expected to touch $18.3 million by 2017.
Across the media industry, most sources that Campaign Asia-Pacific contacted declined to comment, while others said they were evaluating the decision and that it was too early to comment on the implications.
Rajesh Mahtani, head of strategy and growth for SEA, Starcom MediaVest wasn’t surprised by the clampdown given the declining confidence in the government and state institutions. “Vietnam's economy is under strain from slowing growth, high inflation, and lack of faith in government institutions and a culture of fear pervades among people,” he said. “It's only expected that there is criticism lashed against the government on social networks.”
In fact, there have already been several crackdowns against bloggers and those who post comments that criticise the government. Citing Reporters Without Borders, CNN said 35 bloggers and netizens are currently jailed in Vietnam on anti-state charges.
However, Mahtani noted that self-expression will continue to thrive in Vietnam as more than half of Vietnam’s population is under the age of 30. “The youth are curating themselves via their new and constantly evolving canvases of self expression in social spaces and they will channel their disgruntlement to self-express in areas beyond politics,” he noted. “We will therefore continue to see a vibrant social media scene, where Facebook is experiencing massive growth in numbers.”
Tue T. Nguyen, MD, Bates Chi & Partners Vietnam was less critical but equally cautious.
“In my opinion, the purpose of the decree is to minimize the sharing of any gossip or political related information,” Nguyen said. “I believe most Vietnamese understand this and as long as the sharing is positive whether it is personal or non-personal, but only time will tell.”
“It’s still very early days as to how it will be implemented, and many local news sites still have sharing functions,” said Matthew Collier, CEO, Y&R Vietnam. “And from our research, it would appear that much of the activity on social media appears to be more personal than political, and therefore within the boundaries of the new restrictions.”
Collier added that the new restrictions might slow-ad growth on social media, but was confident it would be outweighed by continued growth of digital platforms overall. Digital advertising accounts for 0.9 per cent of ad budgets in Vietnam.