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Vietnam legislators back cyber law clamping down on tech firms, dissent

Vietnamese legislators approved a cybersecurity law on Tuesday that tightens control of the internet and global tech companies operating in the Communist-led country, raising fears of economic harm and a further crackdown on dissent. The cyber law, approved by 91 percent of attending legislators, requires Facebook (FB.O), Google (GOOGL.O) and other global technology firms to store locally “important” personal data on users in Vietnam and open offices in the country.

The vote in the National Assembly came two days after legislators delayed a decision on another draft law that had sparked violent protests in some parts of the country.

Thousands of demonstrators in several cities and provinces denounced a plan to create new economic zones for foreign investment that has fuelled anti-Chinese sentiment. Some protesters had also derided the cybersecurity bill, which experts and activists say could cause economic harm and stifle online dissent.
Tuesday’s vote was held amid tight security, with police manning barricades outside the legislature in the capital, Hanoi. It was not clear when the cyber law would take effect.

Human rights group Amnesty International said the law was a “devastating blow” for freedom of expression, allowing the state to force tech companies to hand over potentially vast amounts of data, including personal information, and censor users’ posts.

“With the sweeping powers it grants the government to monitor online activity, this vote means there is now no safe place left in Vietnam for people to speak freely,” Clare Algar, Amnesty’s director of global operations, said in a statement.

Under the law, social media companies in Vietnam are required to remove offending content from their platforms within one day of receiving a request from the authorities.

Vo Trong Viet, head of the defence and security committee that drafted the law, said the requirement to store data inside Vietnam was feasible, crucial to fighting cyber crime and in line with international rules.

“Placing a data centre in Vietnam increases costs for businesses but is a necessary requirement to meet the cybersecurity need of the country,” he told legislators.

The United States and Canada had urged Vietnam to delay the vote and review the law to ensure it aligned with international standards and address concerns that it may hurt the growth of a digital economy in Vietnam, where its 94 million people are a target for global consumer brands. About 55 million Vietnamese are regular social media users, according to a 2018 global digital report by the media consulting firm We Are Social, and Hootsuite, a social media management firm. Vietnam ranked seventh among active Facebook-using countries, the report said, while its economic hub, Ho Chi Minh City, was number 10 among cities with active Facebook users.Canada said some of the localisation requirements might increase costs, uncertainty and risks for Canadian businesses and inhibit their global operations. The Vietnam Digital Communication Association said the requirements could reduce Vietnam’s gross domestic product by 1.7 percent and wipe off 3.1 percent of foreign investment. Trade and foreign investment are crucial to Vietnam’s economy.

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