It’s now been two and a half months since Vietnam’s much-discussed Decree 72 went into effect, on September 1, and so far there’s been nary a peep about signs of its enforcement. Is this a surprise to anyone? It shouldn’t be.
When the slate of new Internet restrictions was first announced on July 30, a close reading of the Decree showed that it appeared to prohibit Vietnamese Internet and social media users from sharing any information, or even posting links to information, that did not relate strictly to their own personal lives. Any discussion of news and social matters that did not relate explicitly to the space between one’s ears, the Decree seemed to imply, was henceforth out-of-bounds on Vietnam’s web. Decree 72 will help Vietnam’s netizens “find correct and clean information on the internet,” asserted Deputy Minister of Information and Communications Le Nam Thang, in a much-quoted statement.
Scores of international media outlets leapt up, bug-eyed and frothing, to claim that Vietnam had banned citizens from discussing the news. After a similarly explosive reaction from local netizens, Vietnamese officials hastily convened to assure everyone that the seemingly precise words in the Decree had been ‘misunderstood’ and that they intended only to prevent the wholesale theft by social media users of legitimately reported but unattributed news content. In other words, they implied, Decree 72 was designed to protect intellectual property, nothing more.
Whether that is indeed the case is yet to be seen. Many observers scoffed at the explanation, asking when has Vietnam ever cared a whit for copyright? Others saw a more nuanced truth in it, pointing to the still-in-negotiation Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement, which Vietnam dearly wants to join. That group has clearly stated that a commitment to stemming the illegal trade in copyrighted material is a precondition to membership. Hence, some say, Vietnam’s new interest in intellectual property. (If this is true, however, then officials would seem to be stumbling at the starting gate by focusing on their nation’s own IP rather than the open sales of illicitly copied DVDs, CDs, video games, and fake brands on every street of every city, suburb, and straw-thatched hamlet in the nation. TPTA participants such as the U.S., Korea, Singapore, and Japan may be mildly interested to find that Vietnam has in mind the financial interests of its state-owned media — and to a lesser extent the tightly leashed reporters who work for it — but they’d surely be more inclined toward trade partnership if that same diligence were focused on the black-market trade in K-pop, Japanese manga, and Hollywood blockbusters.)
“Decree 72, one official said, will help Vietnam’s netizens ‘find correct and clean information on the Internet’.”
Still others noted that Vietnam has a long history of enacting laws it has neither the intent nor the ability to enforce, and that vaguely written, broadly applicable regulations are a hallmark of the communist regime, which tends to favor just-plausible-enough justifications for arrest and imprisonment rather than a strict and precise reading of the law.
Among the many provisions that Decree 72 either introduced or re-emphasized — such as the now standard, vague exhortation outlawing any sort of online activity that “goes against the state” — was a largely overlooked clause requiring all foreign Internet companies to maintain local servers within Vietnam. That provision has long been on the wishlist of many CPV officials vexed by Google’s and Facebook’s ability to force them into a Hobbesian choice: either embrace the social networks and their Western-style, completely open platforms fully, or block them altogether, as China has. Despite the tissue paper-thin DNS block that’s been unofficially in place on Facebook since late 2009, that social network now claims more than 22 million local members (or 71% of the local Internet population) and growing; in fact, Vietnam is Facebook’s fastest growing nation. And of those millions, a significant number are using Facebook as an ersatz business platform, running tens of thousands of profitable cottage industries out of their homes and laptops. In the current economy, which has been hit hard by metastasizing corruption, a downgraded credit rating, and a big drop in foreign investment, those businesses are important. And virtually every local business and organization has a Facebook page; the Vietnamese web is awash in Like buttons. Similarly, Google.com is the number-one most visited website in Vietnam, with Google.vn just a few steps behind. The amount of leverage that Vietnam has over either of these titans, law or no law, is microscopic.
“Virtually every local business and organization has a Facebook page; the Vietnamese web is awash in Like buttons.”
As much as the government and the party long for more fine-grained control over content on Facebook, which Decree 72’s provision mandating the placement of foreign servers inside the nation’s borders would arguably give them, there’s no sign that any foreign operator — certainly not Google or Facebook — will be complying with that law anytime soon. Shortly after the decree’s announcement in September, the Asia Internet Coalition, an advocacy group formed by eBay, Facebook, Google and Yahoo!, responded that the decree would “negatively affect Vietnam’s Internet ecosystem” and deter foreign investors. It’s inconceivable that local officials are unaware of how toothless the provision is; more likely it’s a face-saving gesture meant to mollify dismayed senior party members accustomed to having total control of the state’s communication apparatus, now watching one of the bulwarks of authoritarian systems since time immemorial crumble before their eyes.
Two weeks ago, a 30-year-old man named Dinh Nhat Uy was convicted in a Hanoi court of using Facebook to campaign for the release of his brother, a government critic who’s been jailed for handing out pro-democracy leaflets. He was found guilty of using the social media site to criticize the government, and received a 15-month suspended sentence, which is considerably more lenient than normally obtains for such charges. Yet the charges against Uy all stemmed from Article 258 of the penal code, “abusing democratic freedoms.” There’s nothing unusual about that in itself, but it does point up the fact that since the passage of Decree 72 more than two months ago, there’s been no sign of its enforcement. Surely last week’s case would have presented an easy chance, given the law’s wording is broad enough to drive a aircraft carrier through it. One might argue that Uy’s use of the social media site was in fact intensely personal, and therefore not in violation of the Decree. One might also argue that since the law’s implementation and the furious international media attention it attracted, Vietnamese officials view it as a third rail, not to be touched under any circumstances.
“The news ecosystem in Vietnam, at this point, appears so fully integrated into the social media ecosystem that disentangling the two would seem to be like separating a pair of twins conjoined at the head.”
Whether we will see anyone called out and fined (or jailed) for posting a link to a Tuoi Tre news article on their Facebook page anytime soon seems unlikely — especially as Tuoi Tre and many other major newspapers seem to encourage just such activity by posting links for every article and news report to their own Twitter feeds and Facebook pages. The news ecosystem in Vietnam, at this point, appears so fully integrated into Vietnam’s thriving social media ecosystem that disentangling the two — for the good of the news outlets themselves, the government suggests — would seem to be like separating a pair of twins conjoined at the head, shoulder, and waist: neither one will enjoy the process, and it’s likely one or both may expire as a result.
At the Voice of America report about Uy’s conviction, reporter Marianne Brown noted, “Although most political activists use social media, observers say the younger generation raised during a period of economic prosperity have their own approach in discussing political reform.” Indeed, theirs is a less-confrontational approach that eschews sniping from blogs for humor, creativity, and irony, often in the form of visual memes and remixed videos. Not only is it less overtly risky for them than taking direct aim at the CPV on blogs filled with denouncements, uppercase letters and exclamation points, but it has the added benefit of being both enjoyable and entertaining – and therefore far more palatable for ordinary Vietnamese, who reflexively avoid overtly shrill attacks on the status quo.
This is a great example of what Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society calls the ‘cute cat theory of digital activism.’ By using the seemingly innocuous tools of remix culture and massively open sharing platforms, citizens in authoritarian societies are able to create and participate in an active public sphere of indirect political commentary and debate that appears on the surface, and at the level of the individual post, to be just about having fun. But taken as a whole, it all adds up to a level of civic engagement that is unprecedented for a nation like Vietnam, in which traditional civil society has long been proscribed.
Of course, given the Vietnamese government’s spotty recent history with making its own intentions clear, it’s possible the output of today’s creative, engaged, and civic-minded youth will simply be “misunderstood.” But let’s hope not.