Vietnam cracks down on social media anonymity with national digital database

Vietnam laptop flag

The Vietnamese Government has proposed a new law which would require every Vietnamese social media user to verify their accounts with their real name and a phone number if they want to be able to make posts or engage with other users.

The upshot of this proposal, were it to be accepted, would be that every Vietnamese social media user would be identifiable at all times when going online.

The move is one of the most invasive policies that we have seen so far outside of the People’s Republic of China when it comes to authoritarian states trying to monitor and control what their citizens are doing online.

How is Vietnam justifying the move?

Needless to say, the Communist regime that controls Vietnam is not admitting that it is a desire to control what people online that is the main motivation for their proposals.

Announcing the proposal, Vietnamese Deputy Minister of Information and Communications Nguyen Thanh Lam argued that “There are times when the authorities identify social media account owners who violate the law but cannot trace them due to their use of cross-border applications.”

Therefore, he said, “Unidentified accounts will be fought against, prevented, and dealt with at different levels.”

If you think that sounds rather vague, you are certainly not alone. The ruling Communist Party has made no attempt to quantify its argument that Vietnam is plagued by online law breakers that cannot be traced.

It is also a clear dig at VPNs, the primary tool used by Vietnamese people that is likely to be classified as a “cross-border” application.

Vietnam’s national database

Experts on Vietnam’s digital policies have suggested that the Vietnamese government is actively building a database of the entire country’s population toward a national-scale digital identification and unification program.

They note that the new law, formally called Decree No. 53/2022/ND-CP, passed in 2022 that came into effect on October 20th of that year, assigns every Vietnamese citizen a personal electronic identification number.

This unique barcode correspondence to their citizen’s ID number and allows anyone with a device that can read the codes to access detailed information about every Vietnamese citizen.

This includes things like where they have travelled, who they have interacted with on their phones, and much more. The new proposal will add a whole new tab to this database, logging who they are engaging with and what they are doing online.

All businesses involved in data collection, exploitation, analysis, and processing within Vietnam’s cyberspace, telecommunications network, internet, and value-added services will be required to store all their data locally to ensure it ends up on this database.

However, they also argue that this step will do nothing to counter the supposed lawlessness online that the Vietnamese regime claims the laws are needed for.

They cite the online response to football racism as a clear example of a problem that has largely been tackled by platforms like Twitter (X) without the need for such invasive laws.

They also suggest that there are better and less intrusive options available, such as the various digital ID systems out there that are designed with privacy rather than state surveillance in mind.

They recommend self-sovereign identity (SSI) technology as a tool that could help protect online privacy while bringing some security benefits that the state is looking for.

Vietnam’s growing control over internet access

However, there is little indication that the Vietnamese regime has any interest in exploring such options, which perhaps tells us more about their real motivations behind these new laws.

And that will come as no surprise to anyone who has monitored online rights in Vietnam in recent years. In the Freedom on the Net 2022 report, the country scored just 22 out of 100, placing it firmly towards the bottom of the list.

It also ranked 178th out of 180 countries looked on the World Press Freedom Index rankings too, and there are at least 160 individuals currently behind bars in Vietnam for exercising their basic political rights and a further 27 people (probably more) in jail for either criticising the Communist regime, advocating human rights, or calling for democracy.

This is also far from the first time the regime in Vietnam has introduced a law that undermined online freedom in the country. The highly controversial ‘Cybersecurity Law‘, which came into force on 1st January 2019, had a hugely negative impact on political and human rights activities online, which was doubtless its primary objective.

However, much like that law, the latest rules will, in practice, do little to stop Vietnamese people from using VPNs to bypass restrictions and access the internet and social media sites from using anonymous accounts if they so wish.

What it will do is increase the importance of using a quality VPN that minimises the risks of the increasingly vigilant Vietnamese authorities catching wind of what you are up to. We recommend using our Best VPN for Vietnam guide to choose the right VPN provider for you.

Once you have chosen the best VPN to use in Vietnam (ExpressVPN is our number one pick), be sure to set things up properly before you start using your anonymous social media accounts.

Make sure the Kill Switch is enabled to ensure your data won’t leak if your VPN connection drops, and take a look at the other settings and features to make sure everything is set up how you want it.

Online freedoms are a core human right, and VPNs are a superb tool for ensuring people around the world can enjoy them. And no law passed by the Vietnamese regime, or another dictatorship, is going to prevent those that really want to from accessing and using the internet freely and without state reprisals.

Author: David Spencer

Cyber-security & Technology Reporter, David, monitors everything going on in the privacy world. Fighting for a less restricted internet as a member of the VPNCompare team for over 7 years.

Away from writing, he enjoys reading and politics. He is currently learning Mandarin too... slowly.

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