Hanoi, Vietnam -- Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites have become hugely popular over the last few years in the heavily-censored Communist country. But a decree issued by the Vietnamese government says blogs should only be used "to provide and exchange personal information."
The document, signed by Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung and made public late on Wednesday, stipulates that internet users should not use social networks to share or exchange information on current events.
Social media users will not be allowed "to quote general information ... information from newspapers, press agencies or other state-owned websites", Hoang Vinh Bao, head of the Department of Radio, TV and Electronic Information, said, according to a report on the state-run VNExpress news site.
It is not clear how the law will be implemented or the penalties faced, but internet commentators said it could in theory make it illegal to share links to stories or even discuss articles published online in Vietnam's state-run press.
The decree, which comes into force in September, also bans foreign internet service providers from "providing information that is against Vietnam, undermining national security, social order and national unity ... or information distorting, slandering and defaming the prestige of organisations, honour and dignity of individuals".
ISPs will also not be allowed to use the Internet to "promote banned goods, services and distribute banned news articles, literature, and publications," according to the decree.
Le Nam Thang, the deputy information and communications minister, said the new rules aim to help internet users "find correct and clean information on the internet."
Vietnam bans private media, and all newspapers and television channels are state-run.
Many citizens prefer to use social media and blogs to get their information rather than the staid official press. But the authoritarian government has repeatedly attempted to stifle growing online debate in what rights groups say is an escalating crackdown on freedom of expression.
Online commentators reacted with fury to the decree.
"This decree clearly aims to muzzle the people," Nguyen Quang Vinh wrote on his well-read blog. The authorities want "to turn us into robots", wrote popular Vietnamese Facebook user Nguyen Van Phuong.
"The announced decree is nothing less than the harshest offensive against freedom of information since Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung signed a decree imposing tough sanctions on the media in 2011," Reporters Without Borders said. "If it takes effect, Vietnamese will be permanently deprived of the independent and outspoken information that normally circulates in blogs and forums."
Until now, blogs and social networks have been important sources of news and information for Vietnamese Internet users, and an effective way of bypassing censorship. Vietnam has arrested and put in jail 35 cyber-dissidents, making it second only to China in the number of news providers it is detaining, according to Reporters Without Borders.
It appears that the rule prohibits Internet users from compiling news as if they were running a news website. The decree says reposted articles must have the original link and online commentators are responsible for their opinion.
According to the Vietnam Internet Network Information Center (VNNIC), Vietnam has about 31.2 million people online as of October 2012, equivalent to one third of the population. Meanwhile, the Facebook office in Vietnam said the number of local Facebook users hit 12 million in March, compared to 8.5 million last October.
Currently, Vietnam law imposes imprisonment terms of up to 20 years for those convicted of what is deems to be conducting propaganda against the state or spreading information against, distorting and defaming it.
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