Vietnam’s new law on online privacy and freedom of thought generates fear
by J.B. An Dang

The law was approved by an 86 per cent margin. For critics it will restrict political and religious freedom. Foreign companies will be forced to provide private user data to the government. In the past, Catholic sites, including AsiaNews, have been blocked. For Catholic priest, Vietnam’s Communist regime deems Catholic social doctrine unacceptable.

Hanoi (AsiaNews) – Vietnam’s National Assembly approved a cyber security law with 423 votes in favour and 43 against, giving the authorities the power to capture sensitive user data and exercise greater control over websites. The law will come into effect in 2019.

For dissidents, this means loss of privacy and greater restrictions on freedom of thought. For the Communist regime, the new restrictions on Internet use are necessary on national security grounds.

For protesters currently demonstrating against the law on special economic zones, the new legislation will allow authorities to access their private data, spy on users and limit freedom of speech on Facebook, Google and other social media.

Information technology companies will have to register their data in Vietnam and provide users' information to the Ministry of Public Security in case of violation of the law.

Moreover, the new law bans Internet users from organising themselves for "anti-state purposes", using terms that "distort history" or "deny the revolutionary results of the nation".

Foreign investors have criticised the Vietnamese government's move. For them, the new law undermines business confidence and slows down the growth of the country's digital economy.

Most foreign technology companies operating from Singapore or Hong Kong will be forced to open an office in Vietnam and keep their data in the country.

In the past, Catholic sites, including AsiaNews, have been blocked. However, users could bypass the block by visiting anonymous sites. This practice is now prohibited by the new law and can be punished with imprisonment.

Vietnam’s twenty-six dioceses and archdiocese, most of Church institutions and movements have websites that are hosted outside of Vietnam to avoid prosecution.

Mgr Paul Van Chi Chu, spokesman for the Federation of Vietnamese Catholic mass media is highly critical of the new law.

“It’s worth noting that the Communist Party considers unacceptable Catholic social doctrine on human dignity and the common good in society that address oppression, the role of the state, subsidiarity, social organisation, concerns for social justice, and issues of wealth distribution,” said Fr Van Chi Chu, of the Archdiocese of Sydney.

The clergyman is also critical of the lack of privacy protection. The law gives the authorities the power to determine when an expression is "illegal" or, even worse, when it violates “national security".

“The provisions in the cyber security law could make it easier for the government to identify and prosecute people for their peaceful online activities,” he warns.

For Lê Công Định, a political activist, “The government now can ask companies managing the Internet or social media to disclose all information about accounts”.

Arrested in 2009 for publishing articles demanding human rights, he was convicted a year later and sentenced to five years in prison on “national security charges”.