Commentary: Big Brother concerns in Ho Chi Minh City as Vietnam launches social listening


Social listening is not new in Vietnam. Foreign and domestic IT companies have offered this service to businesses for years.

Several provinces in North Vietnam have even implemented a citizens’ feedback app to gather data from social listening software, but they failed to make use of the data – collected between 2016 and 2022 in Quang Ninh – to improve the performance of local governmental departments for healthcare, construction management and education, despite their low scores year after year.

Is this listening initiative about becoming Big Brother or another state project wasting public money like the one in Quang Ninh? What is clear now is that Vietnam will rely mostly on global platforms like Facebook, X (formerly known as Twitter), Instagram, and YouTube to gather the data necessary for social listening.

Between 2018 and 2023, most of the eight “Made in Vietnam” social media apps such as Zingme, Lotus, Hahalolo, Gapo, and Vietnamta had failed to attract enough users nationwide to survive, except Zalo – a local app with over 60 million users in 2023.

In short, no homegrown social media in the Vietnamese language can beat global giants like Facebook, with over 75 million users in Vietnam and several millions of overseas Vietnamese in the world. Even Vietnamese media admitted that the country will be “a market dominated by Big Tech” for many years to come.

Vietnam’s over-reliance on foreign social media platforms firstly means that the government will have to work within the Big Tech companies’ data protection policies to carry out its intended social listening programme.

Vietnam’s relationship with Big Tech companies has never been plain sailing. Enacted in 2018, Vietnam’s cybersecurity law required Facebook and Google to take down within 24 hours, any online links and video content deemed to be threats to national security.

Data released by the Ministry of Information and Communications in mid-2022 showed that in the first six months of that year, thousands of posts were removed by Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok.

Such takedowns however are only a small concession by the global platforms to protect their business interests in Vietnam. The key issue is whether Big Tech would accede to the government’s demands for access to customer data.

In August 2022, a decree by the government authorised the Ministry of Public Security, which oversees the police, to issue a decision forcing Big Tech “to store Vietnamese users’ personal data in Vietnam” but with a proviso that such a decision would be complied with “within 12 months”.

No such decision was reported by the Vietnamese press in 2023. The government’s fight over control of the internet and social media with the Big Tech platforms will continue in the coming years.

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