Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004

About

@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Written for The Diplomat

The government of Laos has signed an Internet law that claims to support the growth of the Internet but actually contains numerous contradictory provisions that undermine free speech and other citizen rights. When this was reported almost two months ago, the concern of many was the broad and vague cybercrimes enumerated in the law. At the time, though, a text of the law had yet to be made public. We now have an unofficial English translation of the law and after reading the document, we can confirm that there are grounds to worry about the negative impact of the new law in media freedom and democracy in Laos.

The law has placed strict if not excessive regulations on how Internet users can share or disseminate information online. For example, article 6 recognizes the right of individuals to exchange online data but obliges website administrators “to check content before disseminating it on their web page.” This sounds impractical. The same provision states that “information which is not (approved) from official media or media offices/organizations legally cannot be used officially.” Does this mean that Lao netizens can only share news reports approved by the State?

Article 7 prohibits the creation of anonymous or pseudonymous social media accounts, instead requiring individuals to register by giving their “name, surname and current address in (compliance with official documents).” This is a blow to citizens who seek to expose wrongdoings in the government through the Internet.

Article 9 explicitly bans the posting and sharing of content that feature the following:

– Disseminating false and misleading information against the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, undermining the peace, independence, sovereignty, unity, and prosperity of Lao PDR;

– Circulating information that encourages citizens to become involved in terrorism, murder, and social disorder;

– Supporting online campaigns that seek to divide solidarity among ethnic groups and countries;

– Spreading information that distorts the truth or tarnishes the dignity and rights of individuals, sectors, institutions or organizations;

– Sharing of comments whose content are in line with the above-mentioned prohibitions.

Based on these guidelines, it seems that legitimate criticism of government programs and policies could be interpreted as a criminal act if it creates division, confusion, or “disorder” among the public. It is not hard to see how authorities could use the law to prosecute journalists, activists, and other critics of the government.

Articles 11 and 13 require Internet service providers and website administrators to “terminate access” and “temporarily or permanently block users” who are found to be violating government decrees and other regulations. They are also expected to “cooperate and provide information” to agencies conducting investigations. Meanwhile, article 14 prohibits Internet service providers from providing assistance or opportunities to individuals, legal entities or organizations who seek to undermine the Party and government policies.

The law also identified several agencies that have been given the mandate to conduct widespread online surveillance. Article 18 empowers the Information, Culture and Tourism Sector to “monitor (follow and inspect), diagnose and analyze the Internet-based information content” of individuals, legal entities and organizations.

Article 19 gives the Public Security Sector the authority to “collect, check and analyze Internet-based information [disrupting] national stability and social security.” It can also “conduct an investigation” into individuals and organizations suspected of breaching the law.

The government believes that this kind of Internet regulation is needed. While acknowledging the positive contributions of the Internet to the local economy, Lao officials also warned that the medium can be used to cause panic in society. But the new law will obviously discourage netizens from using online forums to engage public officials and challenge public policies. It is hardly conducive to a free and open Internet. What Laos needs is a law that will encourage Internet commerce and online innovation; not something that will unfairly penalize critics, activists, and even ordinary Internet users.

Corporate Critics Say Vietnam’s New Tech Regulations Are Bad for Business

Written for Global Voices

When Vietnam passed Decree 72 last year, slapping new restrictions on how Internet users can share information online, the government promptly caught heat from human rights and media groups for undermining free speech. But instead of heeding these calls to review or repeal Decree 72, Vietnam has passed two more Internet-related decrees that imposed stricter regulations on tech companies, Internet users, and online transactions.

Several new requirements for general information websites and social networks were issued on Oct. 2, 2014, in Circular No. 09/2014/TT-BTTTT, a document that articulates how the government should implement provisions of Decree 72 pertaining to the regulation of “compiled information” or the sharing of online news information.

Meanwhile, a proposed Information Technology (IT) Services decree has already undergone several revisions and is expected to be signed by the prime minister before the end of the year. The Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), whose members include top tech companies like Google, Facebook, eBay, and Yahoo, has expressed concern over numerous “unnecessary and vague” provisions in the draft IT Services decree.

Circular 09: “Tightening management of social networks”

When the online newspaper of the Vietnamese government reported the implementation of Circular 09, it described the new measure as “tightening [the] management of social networks.” Indeed, it features new requirements for licensing or registration of websites and social networks. These companies are obligated to fulfill the following requirements:

– The person or deputy responsible for the website or enterprise should have a university or higher degree;
– The website should have a “regime for elimination of incorrect contents within three hours from its detection or the request of a competent authority in the form of email, text or phone.”
– “Social networks are required to have an agreement on provision and use of social network service with users, and ensure the users accept such agreement before using the social network”;
– “Users of social network services are required to confirm registration or changes of personal information by receiving messages on their phone or email”;
– “The character string of a domain name can’t be similar or identical to the name of a press agency if it is not such press agency.”

The Vietnam News Biz Hub also added that the decree requires news aggregation websites to develop “a process of public information management that defines its news sources, and must manage and check all kinds of information before and after they publish it.”

The Vietnamese government has consistently blamed social networks in the past for spreading false information that caused panic, tension, and disunity in the country. But through Decree 72 and now Circular 09, the government believes it has already enacted new regulations that will provide authorities easier access and mandate to block and remove “unwanted” online content with the help of website and social media administrators.

Proposed IT Services Decree: Necessary Regulation or Excessive Control?

Through a letter submitted to Vietnam’s Ministry of Information and Communications (MIC) last June 20, the AIC called for the repeal and reformulation of many provisions in the draft IT Services Decree. This suggests that the government conducted some form of consultation on the matter, as the AIC sent a new letter on Oct. 8, reiterating its position that some of the provisions in the edited draft are still “unclear and unnecessary.”

Ostensibly, the draft requires all IT companies to register with the government, and enumerates several obligations, standards, and commitments that registered companies must follow.

The AIC believes that many of the proposed rules would be burdensome and even redundant:

“Over-regulation will challenge the fundamental innovative and fast-moving nature of the technology sector. We do not think that a permission-based approach to regulation is the best structure. We would recommend industry self-regulation that is more consistent with international best practices. The current approach risks creating uncertainty within the industry… It would create a significant barrier to doing business in Vietnam.”

The network highlighted Article 14 which specifies that foreign tech companies:

shall have a legitimate representing organization or individual in Vietnam to resolve, on its behalf, relevant issues and to be responsible fulfilling obligations such as tax, fees, charges and other related duties.
AIC described this item as “unique” among ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries, and noted that it has “created concern for companies due to the lack of detail on expectations of local legal representatives.” It added that it also violates Vietnam’s trade commitments. And it warned that registration and other licensing rules could create an “extra layer [that] could lead to delays and miscommunications.”

If passed, the AIC worries that the decree could discourage startups and tech companies from investing or increasing their presence in Vietnam. But the government insists it is only seeking to protect Internet users and consumers.

Vietnam should also rethink some of its Internet-related laws that restrict free speech and activities of Internet users within the context of global human rights norms to which it is party. At the very least, more consultations should be conducted before before the decree moves any further in the legislative process.

One Response to “Laos’ Internet Law Undermines Free Speech”

  1. Hi Mong,

    Would you have an email address where I could contact you direct?

    Sincerely,

    Mike Kenealy

    @MikeKenealy

    Mike Kenealy

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