As governments across Asia struggle to gain control of the internet and big tech, citizens on social media face growing online crackdowns.

During the COVID-19 lockdowns in Vietnam last year, blogger Bui Van Thuan took to Facebook to criticize a government plan to use soldiers to deliver groceries to people confined to their homes in Ho Chi Minh City.

Days later, he was arrested.

Thuan, 41, a former teacher in the northern province of Hoa Binh, was sentenced last month to eight years in prison for propaganda, and a further five years of probation.

Vietnamese authorities have accused Mr Thuan of “making, storing, disseminating or promoting information, materials and products intended to oppose” the nation.

The fees are increasingly being applied to online content as the state exercises greater control over the internet, according to human rights groups.

“The Vietnamese government has long controlled the country’s traditional media,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“Now they are trying to control the Internet space.

“They have passed a raft of legislation to that end, and they are deploying state machines to stalk people online, coerce them into content moderation and takedown decisions on platforms, using online trolls and controlling access to the internet.”

Mr Thuan is the latest target of Vietnam’s tightening control of the internet, with authorities arresting dozens of journalists and bloggers — and even a popular noodle seller — on similar charges.

Vietnamese authorities said last month that they had tightened regulations to deal with “erroneous” content on social media platforms – such that it must be removed within 24 hours.

This Southeast Asian country has made it one of the most censored in the world for social media companies.

However, Vietnam is not alone.

Internet censorship is at an all-time high in 2022, with a record number of governments blocking political, social or religious content, according to Freedom House, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.

In its annual report, it said increasing “digital repression” had dire consequences for basic rights, including freedom of expression, access to information and privacy, “particularly for people living under authoritarian regimes.”

“In some countries, it’s about restricting the voice of political opponents, activists and other critics of the government,” said Damar Junyarto, executive director of the Southeast Asian Freedom of Expression Network (SafeNet) digital rights group.

“But governments also want to control big tech companies – they see them as very powerful and very influential.”

‘Strict’ timeframe with governments cracking down

More than three-quarters of the world’s more than 4.5 billion internet users live in countries where online expression is penalized by authorities, according to Freedom House, which has ranked China as the worst environment for internet freedom.

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