A lawsuit filed against TikTok by a Vietnamese firm portends a tightening of controls on social media by the authorities.
VNG, one of Vietnam’s biggest gaming developers, is suing TikTok for not having adequate licenses to use audio tracks owned by Zing, a VNG subsidiary, Reuters reported on Monday. There is more than meets the eye here: the roots of the dispute between the Vietnamese technology firm and the popular Chinese short-form video platform has a longer history and broader context.
Even before the lawsuit was filed, TikTok’s soaring popularity had already put it on a collision course with VNG. Despite being 6.4 per cent owned by Chinese Internet juggernaut Tencent, VNG has been billed as Vietnam’s first ever unicorn startup specialising in online gaming, e-commerce, music streaming and messaging applications. TikTok, in the face of the US-driven backlash over national security concerns, has remained a magnet for Vietnam’s Internet-savvy youth seeking to upload short clips to the platform. It boasts of around 10 million users out of Vietnam’s population of nearly 97 million, according to the Reuters report.
There is also a broader context here. Since 2018, VNG – together with two other Vietnamese tech firms – has been at the vanguard of what amounts to a national mission. Vietnam wants 50 per cent of social media users to be on domestic platforms by this year. Currently, foreign platforms Facebook and YouTube account for around 80 per cent of the digital media market.
The Vietnamese government has not intervened to stop VNG’s lawsuit against TikTok. But the latest case against TikTok appears to fit into a bigger pattern of official control of social media, both foreign and local. In repeated attempts to persuade Vietnamese citizens to turn to homegrown social networking sites, the authorities have deployed various tactics to deal with foreign platforms, chief among them Facebook and Google. The authorities have used a selection of instruments: they have characterised them as the fertile ground for “negative and toxic information,” sought to co-opt them and hit them where it hurts most – their pockets. In the view of the authorities, “toxic information” include advertisements for contraband merchandise and state secrets.
Vietnam’s Minister of Information and Communications Nguyen Manh Hung has been at the forefront of this campaign. Less than a year after taking office, Hung told a parliamentary session in August 2019 that Facebook was restricting access to “increasing amounts” of content in Vietnam, adding that the social media giant met 70 to 75 per cent of the Vietnamese government’s requests, compared to around 30 per cent previously. The government also urged all companies doing business in Vietnam to stop advertising on Google’s YouTube, Facebook and other social media until these foreign platforms hammer out a solution to “toxic” anti-government information.
Meanwhile, Hung has pressured Vietnamese companies to build domestic social media platforms that could rival or even better their foreign counterparts. He is not the first Vietnamese politician to have floated the idea of developing domestic platforms. In 2013, Vietnam’s then Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung started the ball rolling by instructing the Central Youth Union to set up a homegrown social networking site that could elbow out Facebook.
Having tried for nearly a decade to exert greater control over information online and silence dissenting voices on social media, the Vietnamese authorities have arrived at a point where they recognise that they could not act like China and ban foreign tech giants altogether.
Between 2007 and 2017, Vietnam issued over 300 licenses to homegrown social networking sites, but few have remained active. None of them have been able to rival Facebook. In the latest attempt to challenge the dominance of Facebook, Lotus, another local social network, entered the fray in September 2019. VCCorp, the developer of Lotus, is ambitious and enjoys what appears to be wholehearted support from the Vietnamese government. But it is still too early to gauge whether Lotus is able to take on the likes of Facebook or Google.
The authorities are essentially using a Vietnamese control model with Chinese characteristics. Having tried for nearly a decade to exert greater control over information online and silence dissenting voices on social media, the Vietnamese authorities have arrived at a point where they recognise that they could not act like China and ban foreign tech giants altogether. But they may have realised that it is a tall order to build a domestic social networking site that could stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of China’s WeChat or Weibo.
The Vietnamese control model embraces foreign social media platforms, and does not aggressively limit their operations until the platforms face a global backlash. In 2015, then Prime Minister Dung made a watershed announcement by saying that it would be “impossible” to ban Facebook. This paved the way for a period in which the authorities and Vietnam’s nascent online activism hatched an unlikely alliance with the social media giant. Then came the headline-grabbing Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018, when millions of Facebook users’ personal data were harvested without their consent. This affected Facebook’s reputation significantly.
The same pattern has repeated itself with TikTok. Before the Trump administration sought to ban the platform early this month, Vietnam’s Ministry of Health launched a TikTok campaign in March to urge its citizens to adhere to social distancing and stay-at-home rules during the Covid-19 pandemic. With the US ban, the Vietnamese authorities appear to be tightening the screws on the Chinese platform.
In the end, the wiggle room for foreign social media is growing smaller. If they still cannot resist the lure of Vietnam’s Internet market, they face a Hobson’s Choice: toe the party line and navigate their way in the country’s perplexing political landscape, or rue that their time might be up.
Dien Nguyen An Luong is Associate Fellow with the Media, Technology and Society Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. A journalist with significant experience as managing editor at Vietnam's top newsrooms, his work has also appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, South China Morning Post, and other publications.