Facebook helped bring free speech to Vietnam. Now it’s helping stifle it.

When Facebook took off in Vietnam about a decade ago, it was like a “revolution,” said two of the company’s early employees in Asia. For the first time, people across the country could communicate directly about current affairs. Users posted about police abuse and government waste, poking holes in the propaganda of the ruling Communist Party. “It felt like a liberation,” said one of the Facebook employees, “and we were part of it.”

But as Facebook’s popularity exploded in Vietnam, soon making this country the company’s seventh largest market worldwide, the government increasingly demanded greater restrictions.

Since then, the social media giant Meta, which owns Facebook, has been making repeated concessions to Vietnam’s authoritarian government, routinely censoring dissent and allowing those seen as threats by the government to be forced off the platform, according to four former Meta employees, human rights groups, industry observers and lobbyists.

Meta has adopted an internal list of Vietnamese Communist Party officials who should not be criticized on Facebook, said two former employees in Asia, who, like the others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid retribution. This list, which is kept private even within the company and has not been publicly reported on before, is included in guidelines used in controlling online content and was shaped in large part by Vietnamese authorities, the former employees said. They said such a list of names is unique to Vietnam in East Asia.

Now, the government is pushing for even more severe restrictions. Meta is preparing to tighten content controls further after being told by officials in recent months that it would otherwise have to store data on servers inside Vietnam, raising alarms about privacy and information security, according to people with knowledge of the company’s internal discussions.

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