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US government slams Vietnam's new Internet control decree

The US government has joined Google and Facebook in criticising a new decree by the Vietnamese state that bans social network users from sharing information and stipulates that international companies must hold servers inside the country.

The 20.4 clause of Decree 72, which is due to become active on 1 September, states that a person's social network page "should be used to provide and exchange information of that individual only; it does not represent other individual or organization, and is not allowed to provide compiled information."

Speaking at a press conference to announce the decree, Vietnam's Deputy Minister of Information and Communications Le Nam Thang claimed that the move has been made in order to prevent the spread of false information.

He also clarified the rather vague wording of the decree, telling reporters: "Personal webpage owners are only allowed to provide their own information, and are prohibited from taking news from media agencies and using that information as if it were their own."

Despite heavy lobbying of the Vietnamese government, which resulted in some of the more extreme proposals being dropped during the drafting process, the US Embassy in Hanoi, along with Google and Facebook, have expressed their disappointment with the final order.

"Fundamental freedoms apply online just as they do offline," the embassy said in a statement. "We are deeply concerned by the decree's provisions that appear to limit the types of information individuals can share via personal social media accounts and on websites."

Asia Internet Coalition, an industry grouping representing Google, Facebook and other Internet companies in the region, said: "We believe that the decree will negatively affect Vietnam's Internet ecosystem. In the long term, the decree will stifle innovation and discourage businesses from operating in Vietnam."

Forcing foreign companies to hold some servers in the country would give the government greater power and influence over their activities.

Decree 72, which also prohibits the posting of material that "opposes" the Socialist Republic of Vietnam or "harms national security", is part of a wider crackdown on dissent in the country, where the communist rulers are growing increasingly weary of the Internet and social media.

However, a Vietnamese government representative insisted that the decree had been "misunderstood."

"We never ban people from sharing information or linking news from websites. It was totally misunderstood," Nguyen Thanh Huyen, head of Vietnam's Online Information Section, told Reuters.

A large proportion of the 46 people arrested in Vietnam for breaking political dissent laws this year have been bloggers, including the prominent Pham Viet Dao, who ran a blog that was critical of government leaders and policies. He has been charged with "abusing democratic freedoms".