Access submits UPR report on Vietnam: Cyber attacks on civil society a key concern

Deborah Brown contributed to this post

Access has partnered with ARTICLE 19, PEN International, and English PEN on a joint submission on Vietnam to the United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The submission focuses on the lack of improvement of human rights, specifically freedom of expression, in Vietnam since the last UPR in 2009, and highlights the Vietnamese government’s troubling response to the recent increase in cyber attacks against civil society.

The UPR was established in 2006 by the UN General Assembly to ensure the “fulfilment by each State of its human rights obligations.” The UPR is a mechanism to review the human rights record of all UN Member States and make recommendations for improvement every 4.5 years. Vietnam’s next review – when Access’ UPR submission will be taken into account – is scheduled for January 2014.

The submission notes that considerable limitations on free expression in Vietnam remain despite the fact that the Vietnamese government accepted a recommendation from the government of Sweden during its last review to “ensure that full respect for the freedom of expression, including on the Internet, is implemented.” Of particular concern is state controlled media and the lack of press freedom, restrictive legislation on freedom of expression, internet surveillance and cyber attacks on civil society, and the persecution of writers, journalists, bloggers, and human rights defenders.

Cyber Attacks
In the second cycle, we highlight the fact that cyber attacks on civil society in Vietnam have recently escalated to include: Denial-of-Service (DoS) attacks, fake domains, account takeovers, and website defacement. The impact of these attacks extend far beyond those directly targeted. The attacks broadly infringe upon civil society’s freedom of association, freedom of expression, and right to access information which are established by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Vietnam is party.

The report notes that pro-government actors in Vietnam have used DoS attacks to make independent media websites unavailable by falsely overloading the sites with internet traffic until they crash. The DoS attacks target websites that are either critical of the government or offer a platform for activists to organize, such as Facebook which is often inaccessible to many in Vietnam for varying lengths of time.

In Vietnam, pro-government actors have utilized fake domains to mirror the exact information of independent media websites while serving malware to their web visitors. The malware is used to implement key-loggers onto the visitor’s computer in order to access their private account information.

In addition, civil society organizations and activists in Vietnam have been subject to account takeovers. This is often accomplished through the use of malware-laden fake domains which breach an internet user’s digital security to access their private account information. On 26 May 2013, the government arrested Vietnamese blogger Truong Duy Nhat and his website was immediately compromised. Just after his arrest, visitors to his website would receive malware downloaded and installed onto their computers without the website visitor’s knowledge.

Website defacement has also been used in Vietnam as a tactic to suppress speech by changing the content of independent media websites’ to promote alternative views to the original content. These attacks are meant to delegitimize independent media and hinder activists’ ability to peacefully organize against government policies.

The UPR submission makes several important recommendations to the Vietnamese government on how to improve its treatment of digital rights and free expression. These include allowing online anonymity, allowing internet users to access blogs and websites outside of Vietnam, ending arbitrary surveillance of internet users, and ending any use of cyber attacks.

The review also requests that the Vietnamese government allow UN human rights experts, known as special rapporteurs, on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, and on the situation of human rights defenders to visit and evaluate the current situation in Vietnam.

The UPR is the first mechanism put in place by the UN to address all human rights issues in all countries. This process is one of the few ways for NGOs to work with governments to improve human rights and hold them accountable to international law. Access is concerned by the ongoing violations of freedom of expression in Vietnam and the specific targeting of Vietnamese civil society, who use the internet to exercise their fundamental rights. We view Vietnam’s UPR as a valuable opportunity to engage the government on the global stage and to raise international pressure on Vietnam to protect and promote human rights, both online and off.