Vietnam’s cyber-security bill continues to cause jitters as promoter remains non-committal

By Staff reporters   November 13, 2017 | 09:49 pm GMT+7
Vietnam’s cyber-security bill continues to cause jitters as promoter remains non-committal
Customers use wireless devices at a coffee shop in downtown Hanoi. Photo by AFP

It remains unclear whether a controversial requirement forcing Google, Facebook to install domestic servers will be scrapped.

Many lawmakers have continued to air grievances about a bill that seeks to require foreign tech giants such as Google and Facebook to set up offices and install servers in Vietnam even after its chief promoter reassured that the country would not use the law as a pretext for hindering the development of the internet.

According to the bill, drafted by the Ministry of Public Security, “foreign enterprises, when providing telecommunications and/or internet services in Vietnam, shall respect the national sovereignty, interests and security of Vietnam and the interests of users, obtain licences for their operations, and locate their representative offices and servers in which Vietnamese user data are administered in the territory of Vietnam.”

This means that Facebook, Google, Viber and Skype would have to establish offices and invest in giant servers in Vietnam. In that case, local internet providers say there is a high possibility that they would drop out of the Vietnamese market.

Critics of the bill have disparaged such requirements, saying they are not only unnecessary but also run counter to international conventions and agreements to which Vietnam is a signatory.

These agreements do not stipulate that foreign companies must have a representative office in member countries. Neither do they allow signatories to dictate if a company is allowed to conduct business based on where its IT infrastructure is located, experts say.

At an ongoing session of the National Assembly, Vietnam’s legislature, Minister of Public Security To Lam on Monday sought to defend the bill, saying it would not hinder the development of the internet in Vietnam.

"If we shut down the internet in the name of cyber-security, we'll trail behind the rest of the world,” Lam said.

But he also highlighted the possibility of putting the country’s cyber-security at risk if “we fail to take control of it”. The draft must ensure that internet development runs in tandem with corresponding security measures, he said.

Lam stopped short of saying whether his ministry would scrap the controversial requirements regarding foreign tech companies.

It is in this context that lawmakers have continued to voice their concerns and opposition to the bill.

"We should not be too rigid,” Nguyen Viet Dung, a legislator from Ho Chi Minh City, said.

“Tech companies can put their servers in the U.S. but we must have the right to manage, to know how many users there are in Vietnam. That doesn’t necessarily require having a server in Vietnam," said Dung, who is the director of the city’s Department of Science and Technology.

Huynh Thanh Dat, director of Ho Chi Minh City National University, stressed that Vietnam only needs foreign companies to commit themselves to provide the government with the necessary data for management.

The national legislature will not vote on the bill until its summer session next year.

The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), an industry association made up of leading internet and technology companies, has also urged the government to deal with issues such as cyber-security, data protection and online criminal activities separately.

In a position paper in September, the group also highlighted key areas of concern in the draft law which put to question whether it is reasonable to address cyber-security risks while at the same time creating the perception that the law will be misused for censorship.

Around 60 percent of the country’s population of nearly 92 million is online. Vietnam is in the top 10 countries for Facebook users by numbers and Google's YouTube is also a popular platform.

Vietnamese authorities are constantly looking at ways to monitor what is being published on social media.

The Ministry of Information and Communications in January issued a circular asking Facebook and similar sites with more than one million Vietnam-based users to collaborate with authorities to block “toxic” content, ranging from ads for banned products to anti-state content.

The ministry also asked Google to block and remove 2,200 clips on YouTube that it said slandered and defamed Vietnamese leaders. Google partially obeyed, removing nearly 1,300 clips in April.

“We have clear policies for removal requests from governments around the world, and those polices have not changed,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement in May when asked if the company would modify its rules to accommodate the requests of the Vietnamese government.

In an article in August, President Tran Dai Quang, a former Minister of Public Security, called for tougher controls on the internet and highlighted threats to cyber-security.

He said hostile forces had used the internet to organize offensive campaigns that "undermined the reputation of leaders of the party and the state, with a negative impact on cadres, party members and the people."

Quang said Vietnam needed to focus more on controlling online information, especially on social networks, and needed an effective solution "to prevent news sites and blogs from carrying bad or dangerous content".