The new cybersecurity law, introduced on 1 January, has received sharp criticism from the US, the EU and internet freedom advocates who say it mimics China's repressive censorship of the internet.
“In the past year we have seen in Europe and the United States more legislation on cyber security aimed to protect privacy and data," says Penelope Faulkner, Vice President of the Paris-based Vietnam Committee for Human rights. "In Vietnam it is exactly the opposite.
"This new legislation is really to give more powers to the government, to the Communist authorities to control the flow of information through the internet.”
Vietnam takes an example in Beijing’s virtual “Great Fire Wall” that protects China’s internet from the rest of the world, controlled by special units within local, regional and central police units who roam the Chinanet looking for dissidents, critics of the Communist Party, Taiwan and Tibetan separatists and adherents of religious cults seen as dangerous by Beijing.
But Vietnam for now lacks the know-how and expertise to make its system as fool-proof as the Chinese one. Yet, the new cyber law is a first step.
The law, officially named the "QH14 cybersecurity law", has 43 articles. It was adopted by the Vietnamese parliament in June 2018. The main points include:
- Companies must store data inside Vietnam. This includes not only names and addresses, but also things like health records and political opinion of users. Data must be provided to the police upon request.
- Companies have 24 hours to delete all data that does not meet the government's approval. This includes criticism, voices of dissent, creation of new political parties.
- Any company that provides online services must have a physical office inside Vietnam. In addition to online giants like Google and Twitter, for instance, a small bank in Scotland that provides online services to people in Vietnam, or a gaming company in France that provides online gaming must comply.
Faulkner hopes that European governments – and especially Paris – would put some pressure on Hanoi to change this law, but she’s not optimistic.
“So far, we have been disapointed in France’s politics towards Vietnam, which should have a focus on human rights. But business interests have always come first.
"I think France has an important role to play in this issue, as a guarantor of human rights and a symbol, and I think it is really important that Europe takes a stand and really impresses upon Vietnam that it won’t just do business for a profit,” she says.
Meanwhile, dozens of online activists have been jailed at a pace not seen in years.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on the communist authorities to revise the law and postpone its implementation.
"This law is designed to further enable the Ministry of Public Security's pervasive surveillance to spot critics and to deepen the Communist Party's monopoly on power," Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of HRW said.
The law comes into force a week after Vietnam's Association of Journalists announced a new code of conduct on the use of social media by its members, forbidding reporters to post news, pictures and comments that "run counter to" the state.
Daniel Bastard of Reporters Without Borders decried the new requirements for journalists and the cybersecurity law, calling it "a totalitarian model of information control".
Vietnam wants to build a reputation as a Southeast Asian hub for fintech – the emerging industry that uses technology to improve activities in finance.
Critics warn the new internet law – particularly the data-sharing element – will make start-ups think twice about relocating to the there.