Vietnam says Google and Facebook may have year to meet cyber law

Vietnamese are allowed to comment on the draft decree, which must be approved by the prime minister. (Bloomberg pic)

HANOI: Vietnam is proposing to allow international Internet companies such as Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook Inc. one year to comply with a controversial cyber law that goes into effect on Jan. 1 and requires them to open local offices and store data of Vietnamese users in the country.

The Ministry of Public Security posted a draft decree on its website Friday on how the law would be implemented following the National Assembly’s approval in June of the legislation, which triggered protests. Vietnamese are allowed to comment on the draft decree, which must be approved by the prime minister.

The law drew dissent from some lawmakers and government leaders as well as local tech groups, who sent a petition to the legislature that warned it would hurt the economy. The legislation pressures Google and Facebook to choose between protecting the privacy of users or growth in one of the world’s fastest-expanding economies. The companies have not commented on the law and the government has not said how it would respond if they fail to abide by it.

Representatives of Google and Facebook did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the draft decree, dated Oct. 31.

Storage, Bans
The law, which requires companies to store at least 36 months of local users’ data in the country, also bans the use of social networks to organize anti-state activities, spread false information or create difficulties for authorities.

Seventeen bipartisan members of Congress urged the companies not to comply with the law if it allows the government to “improperly” access domestic users’ data. The “broad and vaguely worded law would allow the communist authorities to access private data, spy on users, and further restrict the limited online speech freedoms enjoyed by Vietnamese citizens,” they said in a July letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg.

Vietnam’s youthful, growing middle-class is a lure for digital companies. The country averaged economic growth of 6.3% between 2005 and 2017 and multiplied its per capita income six-fold from 2000, according to government data. The Central Institute for Economic Management forecasts the economy will expand 6.88% this year.

Unlike China, Vietnam doesn’t block websites such as Facebook and Twitter. But the government has stepped up arrests of activists since 2016. Last year, officials announced they were deploying a 10,000-member cyber-warfare unit to combat what the government sees as a growing threat of “wrongful views.”