Vietnam blocks Facebook and cracks down on human rights activists during Obama visit

Vietnam has blocked Facebook during U.S. President Obama’s visit to the country and cracked down on human rights activists. The social media shutdown comes on the heels of a parliamentary election in the country on Sunday, and follows reported human rights violations earlier this month. Facebook was blocked last week in the face of street protests but it has now reportedly been escalated to a total ban. We have also confirmed reports of the harassment and arrests of vulnerable activists at an increasing rate.

Facebook blocked

Over the weekend, users on Twitter called attention to the block with screenshots:

And highlighted protests and the elections too:

Crackdown on activists during Obama visit

What may have remained a local story took on added importance because of President Obama’s historic visit this week, in which he has pledged to “normalize” relations with Vietnam and lift an arms embargo. The visit has focused largely on trade but the White House did underscore the importance of human rights in its official press release. Meanwhile, in the parliamentary elections, only 11 independent candidates were accepted by the Communist Party to fill 500 potential seats.

Access Now supports civil society groups in Vietnam through our free 24-hour Digital Security Helpline. Over the past six weeks, we’ve seen several activists arrested; all but one was released. Authorities attempted to infiltrate their devices while they were detained and also to access their email and social media accounts. Additionally, we had numerous cases where the devices of journalists and human rights defenders were hacked remotely. The number of cases is a 450% increase over our usual caseload from the country, indicating a major step-up in pressure by the government.

Internet shutdowns harm human rights and trade

Internet shutdowns must never be allowed to become the new normal. Often justified in the name of public safety, shutdowns instead cut off access to vital information, e-financing, and emergency services, plunging whole societies into fear and destabilizing the internet’s power to support small business livelihoods and drive economic development. Ironically, shutdowns are terrible for trade as well — ostensibly a purpose of President Obama’s visit. Facebook is already a popular social media platform in the country, reaching 30 million users last year.

The United States government often champions the free flow of information over open and secure internet connections, and labels “internet freedom” a foreign policy priority. We call on U.S. officials to condemn this shutdown as a violation of the human rights of Vietnamese citizens.

We’ll be in touch with more updates as developments unfold. Meanwhile, there are a couple ways you can help: