Elsewhere in the Western hemisphere, August represents the tail end of summer, a winding down of the year before the slow march into winter. Here in Vietnam, it’s the peak of rainy season, and by all measures August appears to government officials to be a propitious month for making an international splash. A series of Internet-related controversies have played out over the course of the month, beginning with a new set of prohibitions on Internet use that neatly coincided with Vietnam President Trương Tấn Sang’s visit to the U.S. White House, and ending with a petition from Vietnamese intellectuals urging the National Assembly to suspend or annul the new law. Between those two calendrical goal posts, a fierce online battle has raged over Vietnam’s present and future, convulsing online communities in the country, sowing discord and confusion, and earning world-wide attention.

It’s a telling measure of just how seriously Vietnamese netizens took the announcement a month ago of Decree 72 — a restrictive new slate of Internet regulations that seems to prohibit, among other things, the linking or posting of news articles via social media — that when the Decree was announced on July 30, news articles and commentary about it exploded across the Vietnamese Internet in countless reposts, Facebook status updates, Twitter links, and discussion forum posts. Ironically, many linked directly to VNExpress’s online report, which had also been posted on that newspaper’s Facebook page and had gone out to followers of its popular Twitter feed, not just enabling but begging for the story to be shared, linked, and retweeted thousands of times.

On its face, the blanket prohibition represents the most extensive restrictions on Internet use since the unofficial blocking in November 2009 of Facebook for the country’s residents — a move that generated its own tsunami of first-gen Vietmemes and remixes. (Today, despite that sporadically effective DNS-level block, an estimated 12 million Vietnamese use technical workarounds and third-party software to access the site, and the government has never officially acknowledged blocking the social network.)

A community-generated protest against the blocking of Facebook, inspired by vintage Vietnamese propaganda posters

A community-generated protest against the blocking of Facebook, inspired by vintage Vietnamese propaganda posters

Decree 72 describes a host of vaguely circumscribed new laws regarding internet use, such as one now-standard blanket prohibition against providing “information that is against Vietnam, undermines national security, social order and national unity.” Another requires that all foreign websites have at least one server in Vietnam, which would give local officials greater control of content — a regulation few if any offshore content providers are likely to comply with, as there’s so little incentive for them to do so.

But the one that had most commenters reaching for the Caps Lock button was a section regarding the posting of “compiled information” on social media sites. As of September 1, Internet users are specifically prohibited from making references to “general information” or even quoting “information from state press agencies or websites.” The precise wording of the decree seems to state that personal webpage owners and social media users are allowed to provide and share only personal information, and are prohibited from “compiling” news from media agencies or government sites.

In a statement to GlobalVoicesOnline, Deputy Minister of Information and Communications Le Nam Thang said the intent of the new decree is to prevent “misuse” of the Internet to spread “false information.” It is also intended, he said, to help users “find correct and clean information on the internet.”

The intent of the new decree is to prevent ‘misuse’ of the Internet to spread ‘false information’ and to help users ‘find correct and clean information on the internet.’

The reaction was instantaneous and vocal. At a hastily erected Facebook page denouncing the Decree, comments flooded in. “We are becoming North Korea,” lamented user Phan Quan. Sâu Con Luk Lak wrote, “They ban because they are afraid, because Facebook has broadened the ‘vision’.”

At a VNExpress article about the decree, commenter Manh noted, “The technology of Vietnam will go back to the Stone Age.” Others screamed hypocrisy: user Kiên wrote, “Should they ban newspapers from getting their news from Facebook? That’s what newspapers are doing now.”

A BBC Vietnamese report drew hundreds of comments. “Every prominent website of Vietnam is integrated with Like and share buttons of Facebook and other social sites. Before banning sharing on them, they’ll need to remove all these buttons,” wrote Tuấn Nato.

Others took a harder line. Hai Nguyen wrote, “Too many bullshit decrees, there will be one day people cannot resist anymore.” Reader Độc Phong noted, “They cannot ban everything. When people can feel the freedom, they don’t want to be constrained anymore.” Lý Phương snapped, “Vietnamese users are intelligent enough to deal with information. We need freedom to develop.”

Some users worried less about the personal inconvenience than about the impact the Decree may have on national development. Blogger Hieu Minh posted that, “Decree 72 will make it hard for Vietnam’s ICT to compete in the global market. Who will outsource to Vietnamese companies for software programmers … if the Internet is controlled in this country? About ICT development, we are way behind because of the outdated thinking.”

An image making the rounds on popular Vietnamese meme board HaiVL.

An image making the rounds on popular Vietnamese meme board HaiVL.

Another popular blogger, Dong La, writing at Diễn Đàn Công Nhận, dubbed it the “Shut-the-Mouth Decree,” asserting its aim is to shut the mouth of the people so they cannot reflect on corruption or other “sensitive” information. “The government should focus on solving internal problems like corruption and economic inflation rather than shutting the freedom of speech,” he writes. “This only makes the image of the Vietnamese government worse in the eyes of foreign governments.”

The wise-crackers got in their digs, as well: “If there is no ability to ‘share’ news, how many people would even know about this decree?” asked Hoa. In a clever double-entendre, Twitter user @capheinated cracked, “VN Government crosses off another item on its Tự-Do list.” (Tự do is Vietnamese for “freedom”).

Outside the country, the Asia Internet Coalition, an industry advocacy group formed by eBay, Facebook, Google and Yahoo!,and LinkedIn, piled on, saying it would “negatively affect Vietnam’s Internet ecosystem,” stifling innovation and deterring foreign investors.

“Vietnamese users are intelligent enough to deal with information. We need freedom to develop.”

Within hours of news of the decree being made public (much of it via links and snippets shared on social media), government officials were backpedaling furiously, claiming that the seemingly precise wording of the decree had been “misunderstood.”

“Vietnamese citizens are allowed to share links to news articles on their blogs, but not copy and paste whole reports on their pages,” said Hoang Vinh Bao, director of the Broadcast and Electronic Information Department, in an interview the following day. Bao made the statement, the paper reported, “in response to public outcry over the government’s latest decree that bans bloggers from ‘collecting’ news articles on their blogs …. Bao said people are permitted to copy and paste an excerpt from a news article and share its link,” the article continued, “or share the link only.”

In a follow-up statement to Reuters, Nguyen Thanh Huyen, head of the Ministry of Information’s Online Information Section, said, “We [will] never ban people from sharing information or linking news from websites. It was totally misunderstood.”

Despite a steady stream of denials and spin in the days following July 30, both local netizens and international news outlets seemed to take the wording of the decree at face value.

On August 1, the Straits Times reported (via AFP), “Vietnam is to ban bloggers and social media users from sharing news stories online, under a new decree seen as a further crackdown on online freedom.”

The Bangkok Post led with reaction from the street: “Facebook users in Vietnam on Thursday slammed a new decree which bans people from posting information found online. ‘Will sharing a link also be punished?’ Facebook user Hanh Phuc posted on his profile, adding ‘we need freedom for development.’ Another user, Huong Nguyen, wrote that the decree was ‘evidence that the government doesn’t understand the trend of society to become more open.’

“All personal Facebook pages can’t accumulate ìnformation. I guarantee because I have read the Decree 72 three times already!”

The following day, on August 2, the press freedom advocacy group Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) story was headlined “Government wants to ban Internet users from discussing the news.” The influential NGO went on to call for international economic sanctions and urged that Vietnam be excluded from the upcoming Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership negotiations.

Also on Aug. 2 Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch worried that the decree’s wording was crafted so that it can be applied selectively: “This is a law that has been established for selective persecution,” he told Voice of America. “[It] will be used against certain people who have become a thorn in the side of the authorities in Hanoi.”

The RSF and HRW stories kicked international attention into high gear. At The Telegraph, the story began with, “Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites have become hugely popular over the last few years in the heavily-censored Communist country. But a decree issued by the government said blogs should only be used ‘to provide and exchange personal information’.”

The major U.S. media finally got in on the drubbing on Aug. 6, citing both the RSF and HRW reports and quoting a statement from the American Embassy in Hanoi: Decree 72, it said, “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.” In a jab at Vietnam’s soft underbelly, it claimed the new regulations would “limit the development of Vietnam’s budding IT sector by hampering domestic innovation and deterring foreign investment.”

In the week following the announcement, while the rest of the world was twisting itself into knots over the news, the buzz online among Vietnam’s digiterati had, curiously, chilled out somewhat, with some users calling for a closer listen to what officials claimed the decree was meant to achieve. Quite a few seemed to have warmed to the Ministry’s argument that the restrictions were meant to protect the intellectual property of news organizations in Vietnam and to bring Vietnam into closer alignment with international copyright laws.

Facebook member Phương Phạm, for example, wrote, “This doesn’t really matter, it’s just less views for news website → less advertising → less money. It is actually right because we make money for Facebook, and a foreign country, not Vietnam.”

At the VNExpress article, commenter hoang dai said, “I think the decree has the right aim. It requires people to respect the intellectual property of the author … It is not prohibition or banning. People don’t have the right to copy others’ work. If you want to share it, you need to copy the link and it will appear on your Facebook.” Hieu Tran agreed: “That is a right thing to do to develop journalism. It is not fair for journalists that people steal and post their news anywhere without acknowledgement.”

At a post on popular blog Beoth, owner Beo went still further: “To compare seriously and deeply, we have more freedom and democracy than the United States tens of thousands of times, with that statement of Decree 72.”

“I think the decree has the right aim. It requires people to respect the intellectual property of the author.”

Writing at Tech in Asia, editor Steven Millward sees two sides to the story, generally siding with the (revised) official account that the decree is meant to prevent flagrant copying and pasting without attribution of news content into other platforms, depriving the originating news outlets of site visitors and therefore advertising revenue. Such behavior is widespread in Vietnam, he observes — a sort of mirror-image of the slow asphyxiation traditional news media outlets in the U.S. are suffering though in their march to obsolescence. There, aggregators like Yahoo News, Google News, and a host of smaller online middlemen are Hoovering professional news content from the big boys and driving a wedge between consumers and producers. In Vietnam, the online aggregators aren’t outfits like big news media portals, who don’t know what to do with Vietnamese language news, but the users themselves.

But when has Vietnam ever shown the slightest interest in enforcing copyright laws? The byways of every urban metropolis, town, hamlet and floating market in the nation are bursting with shops selling pirated DVDs, pilfered music CDs, photocopied books, and black-market copies of just-released video games and software, to say nothing of the mountains of fake brand-name clothing and accessories for sale at every market. Many of those CDs, to be fair, are illicit copies of the creative works of Vietnamese artists; the copiers care little for the politics of nationalism. But this particular content is different: not only is it Vietnamese content and revenue that’s in jeopardy, but it’s the government’s content and revenue — not that of some fat-cat foreign movie studio or software developer, or some Mekong beauty queen fresh off The Voice Vietnam. All the major news outlets in the country are state-owned enterprises, which means that any hiccup in their profitability has the immediate attention of some of the nation’s most influential policy-makers and owners of Bentleys, Anh Phu McMansions, and foreign fast-food franchises.

But just as important to understanding officials’ newfound concern for copyright, former diplomat David Brown writes at the Asia Sentinal, is the looming Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership.

“Hanoi dearly wants into the pact,” Brown observes, “but part of the admission fee is a credible commitment to protect other partners’ intellectual property. That’s a tall order. Particularly in the online realm, Vietnamese authorities are incapable of policing whether citations are full and accurate, let alone chase down failure to respect copyrights.

“In the end,” he continues, “like so many Vietnamese laws and decrees, the controversial provisions of Decree 72 seem mostly hortatory, ideologically motivated and impossible to enforce in a systematic way.”

Finally, as many have observed, the ambiguous wording of the regulations is likely deliberate, as is so often the case in Vietnam, providing enough wiggle room for government officials to apply the laws to virtually any kind of social media use they find objectionable, and non-specific enough to create uncertainty and anxiety among users who might be tempted to pass along any content that could be considered sensitive to higher-ups.

One of the more sophisticated memes to emerge in the wake of Decree 72. In it, users parody its social media restrictions by deliberately confusing them with recent other widely mocked Vietnamese laws, such as those mandating a minimum chest size for motorcycle drivers and an age limit of 33 for giving birth.

The Decree is meant to go into effect on September 1, just days away. Yet as several observers have noted, the regulations as written appear all but impossible to enforce. With 12 million Facebook users, another estimated 12 million on locally-grown social network Zing.me, tens of thousands on Twitter and other microblogs, and millions more on countless discussion boards, social news sites, personal blogs, and mobile chat apps in this country of 90 million, even if the Vietnamese government wished to crack down on the sharing of news, it would require resources vastly beyond what it can presently muster.

“All the major news outlets in the country are state-owned enterprises, which means that any hiccup in their profitability has the immediate attention of some of the nation’s most influential policy-makers and owners of Bentleys, Anh Phu McMansions, and foreign fast-food franchises.”

At Tech in Asia, Millward sees an exquisitely paradoxical Catch-22 in the new decree’s aims: “News sites are the top web destinations in the country,” he says, “and most of their growth is due to the proliferation of social media.”

With September 1 looming, the month closed out with a bang: on August 28, a group of 630 Vietnamese intellectuals, bloggers, lawyers, former Party and military officials, journalists, economists, and assorted other pro-democracy advocates submitted a petition to the Vietnamese National Assembly taking issue with Decree 72. Led by blogger and permanent thorn in the side of the CPV Nguyen Hue Chi, the open letter pulled apart the wording of the Decree into its constituent atoms. Pointing to President Sang’s recent trip to Washington and Vietnam’s expressed interest in becoming a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council next year, the letter argues that that Decree 72, in its wording and intent, conflicts with a slew of other laws and agreements that Vietnam has passed or signed. According to the signers, they include “the Constitution, the laws of Vietnam, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations.” In light of this, the signers call for Decree 72 to be either suspended or anulled entirely.

It’s a safe bet no mention will be made of the petition or its demands in the state-controlled local press. But it’s equally certain that it is being widely shared and discussed across the full spectrum of Vietnam’s myriad social media platforms.

In the final analysis, it’s too early to say just what the new regulations will mean for the Internet in Vietnam — for the burgeoning but increasingly powerful online public sphere it’s nurturing, for development of the tech sector that authorities claim is so important to the country’s economic future, for the continued relevance of Vietnam’s news media (such as it is), for foreign investment in the country, or for the lives of the many millions of citizens who, through social media, are discovering a world they’ve never dreamt of until now. But whatever it means, you can be sure Vietnamese people will be reading about it on Facebook, whether the government likes that or not.

PS