A senior official of the American social media giant told Reuters that Vietnam threatened to shut down Facebook if it did not succumb to government pressure to censor more local political content on its platform.

The official said that Facebook in April followed the government’s request to substantially increase the censorship system for local users’ “anti-national” posts, but Vietnam again asked the company to increase restrictions on important posts in August.

The official, who asked not to be named, said: “We reached an agreement in April. Facebook has maintained the termination of the agreement, and we hope the Vietnamese government will do the same.”

“They came back to us and tried to get us to increase the amount of content we restricted in Vietnam. We have told them no. This kind of request poses some threats and what will happen if we don’t.”

The official said the threats include the complete shutdown of Facebook in Vietnam, which is a major market for social media companies, which has annual revenue of nearly US$1 billion (about 74 billion rupees), according to people familiar with the matter.

Facebook faces increasing pressure from the government on its content policy, including threats of new regulations and fines. But it avoids all bans except for a few places that have never been allowed to operate, such as China.

In Vietnam, despite comprehensive economic reforms and increasing openness to social changes, the ruling Communist Party still maintains strict control over the media and hardly tolerates any opposition. In the global press freedom ranking compiled by Reporters Without Borders, the country ranked fifth from the bottom.

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In response to questions from Reuters, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Vietnam stated that Facebook should abide by local laws and stop “spreading information that violates Vietnamese traditional customs and national interests.”

A Facebook spokesperson said that in recent months, Vietnam has faced more pressure to censor more content.

In the semi-annual transparency report released on Friday, Facebook stated that after the Vietnamese government requested the removal of anti-national content, Vietnam had restricted access to 834 items in the first six months of this year.

“Clear responsibility”

Facebook has approximately 60 million users in Vietnam and is the main platform for e-commerce and political dissidents to express. It is currently under continuous government scrutiny.

Reuters reported exclusively in April that in Vietnam, Facebook’s local server was offline at the beginning of this year until it met government requirements.

For a long time, Facebook has been criticized by rights groups for overly complying with government censorship requirements.

The spokesperson said: “However, we will do our best to ensure that our services remain available so that people can continue to express their views.”

Vietnam tried to establish a local social media network to compete with Facebook, but none of them reached any meaningful level of penetration. The Facebook official said the company did not see a large influx of Vietnamese users on the local platform.

The official said that before reaching the current stalemate, Facebook received “14 months of negative media publicity” in the state-controlled Vietnamese media.

When asked about Vietnam’s threat to shut down Facebook, the human rights organization Amnesty International stated that the company has not been banned after boycotting the Vietnamese government’s threats, indicating that the company can do more to resist Hanoi’s demands.

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Ming Yuha, deputy director of the Amnesty International Campaign District, said: “Facebook has a clear responsibility to respect human rights in its activities all over the world, and Vietnam is no exception.” “Facebook prioritizes profit in Vietnam and does not respect human rights.”

© Thomson Reuters 2020

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