Facebook has agreed to block access to certain anti-government content to users in Vietnam, following months of having its services throttled there, reportedly by state-owned telecoms.
Reuters, citing sources within the company, reported that Vietnam requested earlier in the year that Facebook restrict a variety of content it deemed illegal, such as posts critical of the government. When the social network balked, the country used its control over local internet providers to slow Facebook traffic to unusable levels.
An explanation at the time that the slowdown was owing to maintenance of undersea cables likely did not convince many, since it was specific to Facebook (and related properties Messenger and Instagram).
All things being equal, Facebook has shown in the past that it would prefer to keep discourse open. But all things are not equal and in this case millions of users were unable to access its services — and consequently, it must be said, unable to be advertised to.
The slowdown lasted some 7 weeks, from mid-February to early April, when Facebook conceded to the government’s demands.
One Reuters source said that “once we committed to restricting more content… the servers were turned back online by the telecommunications operators.”
Facebook offered the following statement confirming general, though not specific, aspects of the story reported by Reuters:
The Vietnamese government has instructed us to restrict access to content which it has deemed to be illegal in Vietnam. We believe freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, and work hard to protect and defend this important civil liberty around the world. However, we have taken this action to ensure our services remain available and usable for millions of people in Vietnam, who rely on them every day.
Facebook is no stranger to government requests both to restrict and to hand over data. Although the company inspects these requests and sometimes challenges them, it’s Facebook’s stated policy to comply with local law — even if that means (as it often does) complicity with government censorship practices.
The justification usually offered (as here) is that people in a country with such restrictions are better served with an incomplete set of Facebook’s communications tools rather than none at all.