Vietnam rolls out web monitor to control 'false information'

Lawmakers passed a tough cybersecurity law in June requiring internet providers to store data in the country and remove "toxic content" if requested to do so. PHOTO: REUTERS

HANOI (AFP) - Vietnam said Wednesday (Oct 31) it has set up a web monitoring unit that can scan up to 100 million news items per day for "false information", in a move that tightens its grip on internet freedom.

The one-party state has rolled out a series of measures to boost its control of online communication, which critics say is aimed at punishing activists who use Facebook and YouTube as their main platforms.

Lawmakers passed a tough cybersecurity law in June requiring internet providers to store data in the country and remove "toxic content" if requested to do so. Firms like Facebook and Google will also have to hand over user data if asked by the government.

Neither company has publicly commented on the bill.

The move came after a top general announced a 10,000-strong internet task force had been set up to monitor online posts.

Dissidents say the cyber-soldiers flood their Facebook pages with pro-government commentary.

The latest system includes software that can allegedly read 100 million items online daily "for analysis, evaluation and categorisation," said information minister Nguyen Manh Hung, according to the government's website.

"It is necessary to legally punish those who publish wrong information on social media... we cannot leave this front unmanned," he said.

He did not provide details on how the virtual unit functions, or how the so-called dubbed the National Centre on Supervising Information can scan such a large chunk of data.

In a veiled reference to Facebook and Google, he added Vietnam should be "tougher" in asking international internet companies to follow Vietnamese laws, namely requests to remove information.

The communist country has tightened the noose on internet expression and is accused of targeting activists, who rely on Facebook as a widely popular and crucial platform since all media is state-controlled.

The cybersecurity law, which mimics China's web law and is set to come into effect in January, prompted outcry from the US, the EU and rights groups.

The Ministry of Public security said the bill was aimed at staving off cyber-attacks - and weeding out "hostile and reactionary forces" using the web to stir up violence and dissent, according to a transcript of a question-and-answer session with lawmakers this week.

Shrinking freedoms

Critics say web freedom is shrinking under a hardline administration in charge since 2016, under which dozens of activists have been jailed at a pace not seen in years.

The administration has also gone after protestors who waged rare protests in June over a proposed investment law, with nearly 80 people jailed.

Another 30 people were sentenced to between two and 3.5 years on Wednesday in central Binh Thuan province, where the demonstrations spun out of control.

The nation-wide protests - which also included calls to scrap the cyber law - came as a surprise in a country where demonstrations of any kind are banned.

They were fuelled by anti-China sentiment, with protestors accusing the government of offering long-term leases to Chinese investors in proposed special economic zones, though Beijing was not named in the bill.

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