Amnesty International has accused Facebook and Google of complicity in "industrial-scale repression" in Vietnam, underscoring the social media companies' awkward position in one of Asia's fastest-growing online markets.
In a report published on Tuesday, the human rights group accused the companies of being too amenable in complying with requests made by Vietnam's communist authorities to take down content.
Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty's deputy regional director for campaigns, also said that Facebook and Google's YouTube online platforms had become "hunting grounds for censors, military troops, and state-sponsored trolls".
The allegations of abetting censorship in Vietnam followed long-running accusations that Facebook, which recently launched an independent oversight board, lent itself to manipulation by political campaigns or those who spread hate speech in countries from the US to Myanmar and the Philippines.
I have changed my views of Facebook over the last two years because of how it co-operates with the Vietnamese government to limit the flow of information
Long Trinh, co-founder of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam"Vietnam is the only country we have seen where Facebook has complied with such a degree to a government's excessive demands," Ms Hah told the Financial Times.
Vietnam, with a population of 97m, has 65m active social media users, with Facebook and YouTube the two most popular social media platforms, according to We Are Social, the consultancy.
Unlike its communist neighbour China, Vietnam never banned the social media companies. Facebook, in particular, has played a central role in recent years in allowing people to share information unreported on state-controlled media, and to organise protests.
However, in April Facebook acknowledged that it had agreed to increase significantly its censorship of "anti-state" posts in Vietnam, saying that authorities had deliberately slowed traffic to the platform to pile pressure on it.
YouTube won praise from Nguyen Manh Hung, Vietnam's information minister, in October for its removal of what he described as "bad information propaganda against the party and the state". The official was quoted in state media as saying that Facebook and Google had complied with 95 per cent and 90 per cent of its censorship requests respectively.
"Facebook provides a free flow of information into a very repressive country, and it's where people connect with each other," Long Trinh, co-founder of Legal Initiatives for Vietnam, an online magazine focused on political and social issues, told the Financial Times.
"However, I have changed my views of Facebook over the last two years because of how it co-operates with the Vietnamese government to limit the flow of information."
According to Facebook's most recent Transparency Report, the company restricted content at the government's request 834 times in the first half of this year, up 985 per cent from 77 such incidents in the second half of 2019.
"Facebook used to be a free place for political discussions, but no longer," Mr Long said.
Facebook said it had been restricting content after it became clear that failing to do so would lead to its services being completely shut down by Vietnamese authorities. "Over the past few months, we've faced additional pressure from the government of Vietnam to restrict more content. However, we will do everything we can to ensure that our services remain available so people can continue to express themselves," the company said.
Google said: "We rely on governments to notify us of content that they believe is illegal through official processes, and will restrict as appropriate after a thorough review."
According to Amnesty, there are 170 prisoners of conscience in Vietnam, the highest number the group has ever recorded. Two in five were imprisoned, the group said, for peaceful social media activity.
- Financial Times