Protests over takedown policy add to Facebook’s challenges in fast-growing region
A group of 50 human rights activists and independent media groups in Vietnam have written to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, accusing the social media platform of working with communist authorities to take down content and suspend accounts.
The open letter, released early on Tuesday, adds to a growing wave of controversy Facebook faces in south-east Asia, one of its fastest-growing regions, ahead of a US Congressional hearing at which Mr Zuckerberg is due to testify on Tuesday about data leakage.
The protest from Vietnam came even as civil society groups in Myanmar, who last week accused the social media platform of reacting too slowly to complaints of dangerous hate speech, released a response from Mr Zuckerberg in which he apologised and said Facebook had added dozens more Burmese-speaking reviewers to its staff.
Vietnam’s media and internet operate under censorship, and the country has jailed numerous bloggers and political dissidents. Its army last year announced the creation of Force 47, a 10,000-strong “cyber army”.
The signatories of the letter said “groups of government trolls” were coordinating mass reporting of activists’ accounts, and celebrating when Facebook took them down. The Vietnamese activists said they had been in contact with Facebook representatives “often” to try to ensure content remained online.
“Prior to 2017, your company’s assistance has been fruitful,” the letter to Mr Zuckerberg said. “Since last year, however, the frequency of takedown has increased and Facebook’s assistance has been unhelpful in restoring accounts and content.”
They said that before and during a major trial of Vietnamese human rights activists this month, “many accounts and pages of high-profile citizen journalists were prevented from posting”. A court in Hanoi sentenced six prominent human rights activists to long prison terms.
The letter writers said they were “dismayed” to learn that Monika Bickert, Facebook’s head of global policy management, had met with Truong Minh Tuan, Vietnam’s minister of information, in April 2017 and “reportedly agreed to co-ordinate in the monitoring and removal of content”.
In response, Facebook said that it was “committed to protecting the rights of the people who use Facebook” in keeping with its community standards, and to “enabling people to express themselves freely and safely”.
“We will remove content that violates these standards when we’re made aware of it,” the company said. “There are also times when we may have to remove or restrict access to content because it violates a law in a particular country, even though it doesn’t violate our community standards.”
Facebook also said that it had “a clear and consistent government request process”, which was no different in Vietnam than in the rest of the world.
Vietnam’s ministry of foreign affairs had no immediate comment.
The Vietnamese letter opens a new front of criticism against Facebook in Asia. In Myanmar and Sri Lanka, Facebook has been accused of responding too slowly to hate speech spread on its platform; in the Philippines and Cambodia, activists say it has allowed supporters of leaders with authoritarian tendencies to exploit it.
In Vietnam, however, the activists claim Facebook is working with authorities to prevent “openness and connectivity” in a country where free speech is suppressed.
Separately on Tuesday, six civil society groups that wrote to Mr Zuckerberg last week released a letter in which Facebook’s chief executive apologised “for not being clear about the important role that your organisations play in helping us to understand and respond to Myanmar-related issues”.
The groups complained last week after Mr Zuckerberg addressed in an interview an incident in September in which unknown actors used Facebook’s Messenger platform to send false terrorism warnings to thousands of people in the south-east Asian country.
In his response, dated April 6 and released on Tuesday, Mr Zuckerberg said in addition to employing dozens more Burmese-language reviewers the company was building artificial intelligence to help it better identify “abusive, hateful, or false content even before it is flagged by our community”.
Civil society groups responded by saying that Facebook’s “proposed improvements are nowhere near enough to ensure that Myanmar users are provided with the same standards of care as in the US or Europe”.
“When things go wrong in Myanmar, the consequences can be really serious — potentially disastrous,” the groups said.
By John Reed, Financial Times