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This article analyzes current Vietnamese regulations on protection of women and juveniles against illegal acts in cyberspace, points out some limitations and inadequacies in the practice of protecting women and juveniles in cyberspace and proposes remedies related to relevant regulations, technical measures and solutions, technology applications, staff, and effective international cooperation.
Cyberspace is a connected network of information technology infrastructure, including telecommunications networks, the Internet, computer networks, information systems, information processing and control systems, and databases; is a place where people perform social behaviors that are not limited by space and time . It is reported that Vietnam is one of the countries with the fastest growing Internet usage rate in the Asia Pacific region. The strong development of cyberspace brings about many benefits but at the same time poses great challenges in protecting human rights, including the rights of women and children against illegal acts and online violence.
Due to special characteristics related to gender factors and age development, women and juveniles easily face many risks, including the risk of being abused in cyberspace. In fact, common problems that women and juveniles face in cyberspace include accessing too many fake news, being easily bullied online, being lured for property appropriation, easily accessing pages with malicious information or harmful contents (fraud, gambling, betting, religion, politics, etc.) attached or displayed in game software, and watching movies. More seriously, sexual abuse, exploitation and fraud against women and juveniles online are also on the rise. According to the Criminal Police Department of the Ministry of Public Security, in the 2010-18 period alone, the Criminal Police force discovered, investigated and handled 319 out of total 337 subjects who committed sexual assaults against juveniles by using tricks on social media sites, including 33 foreigners and overseas Vietnamese .
The consequences of this abuse are sometimes very serious, not only affecting the victims’ physical health, but also their immediate and long-term mental health. In not a few cases, women and juveniles abused online have shown various psychological abnormalities that are likely to lead to depression or even suicidal intentions.
Protecting women and juveniles from illegal acts in cyberspace is the responsibility of the international community. The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) (2013) has recommended the member states to “support the development and use of information technology and social media as a resource to empower women and girls, including access to information on preventing and responding to violence against women and girls; and develop mechanisms to combat the use of information technology and social media to perpetrate violence against women and girls, including the use of information technology by criminals for sexual harassment, sexual exploitation, child pornography and trafficking of women and girls as well as emerging forms of violence such as stalking, cyberbullying and privacy violations that compromise safety of women and girl” .
The United Nations emphasizes national mechanisms to protect women and juveniles from cyberspace violence. Under this mechanism, legal institutions play a role in identifying subjects and mechanisms for coordination between subjects in protecting women and juveniles in cyberspace; measures to protect and support women and juveniles interacting in cyberspace in general as well as protect and support women and juveniles who are victims of cyberspace violence. At the same time, legal institutions must also clearly describe acts that are dangerous to society and harmful to women and juveniles as well as sanctions for and procedures for handling such dangerous acts. Along with legal institutions, institutions (in the state and social sectors) also need to play an active role in ensuring the law enforcement process and supporting the protection of women and juveniles in cyberspace in general and against abusive acts in particular.
Showing a serious attitude toward realizing its international commitments on protecting human rights, over the recent years Vietnam has formulated and continuously improved a mechanism to protect women and juveniles in cyberspace in general and against cyber violence in particular. The 2013 Constitution of Vietnam enshrines the rights of women and juveniles in human rights and civil rights regulations, clearly emphasizing everyone’s inviolable right to private life, personal secrets and family secrets, right to protect their honor and reputation, right to inviolability of the body and protection of health, honor and dignity by law; right not to be subjected to torture, violence, coercion, corporal punishment or any other form of treatment that harms the body, health, honor or dignity (Article 20.1); and strictly prohibits child harassment, persecution, maltreatment, abandonment or abuse, child labor exploitation or other acts that violate children’s rights (Article 37.1). The State, society and family create conditions for women to develop comprehensively and to advance their role in society (Article 26.2). Concretizing the Constitution’s provisions, other normative documents specify measures to prevent, intervene and handle violations infringing upon the rights of women and juveniles in cyberspace.
Under the Law on Cyber Security, individuals are protected when participating in cyberspace activities against malicious and toxic information and information that infringes upon human honor, reputation and dignity, cyber attacks, cyber espionage, cyber terrorism, and other acts that affect their lawful rights and interests. Its Article 4.3 provides: “To closely combine the tasks of protecting cybersecurity, protecting important information systems for national security with the tasks of promoting socio-economic development, guaranteeing the human rights and citizens’ rights, thereby creating conditions for organizations and individuals to operate in cyberspace.” Most recently, under Decree 56/2017/ND-CP, when disclosing confidential information about juveniles’ private lives online, agencies, organizations, service providers in the cyberspace and individuals, must obtain consents of their parents or caregivers, or their own consents, for juveniles aged 7 years or older, and are responsible for ensuring information security of such juveniles.
In addition to the legal system concerning the prevention of cyberspace violence, provision of support to, and intervention to protect, women and children against cyberspace violence, including the Law on Children and the Law on Gender Equality, provisions on violations and sanctions for acts of violence against women and juveniles in cyberspace can be found in the Penal Code, the Law on Handling of Administrative Violations, Decree 15/2020/ND-CP on sanctioning of administrative violations in the fields of post and telecommunications, radio frequencies, information technology and e-transactions.
Despite the fact that there is no specialized legal document on the protection of women and juveniles in cyberspace, it can be seen through the system of regulations directly concerning or relevant to the protection of women and juveniles in cyberspace that the country has made great efforts to protect women and juveniles from cyberspace’s harmful impacts. In fact, a considerable increase in the rate of women and juveniles being abused in cyberspace at present has posed an urgent requirement on continued building and improvement of legal bases for protecting and supporting women and juveniles against, and preventing and handling, violent acts in cyberspace.
The Law on Children, Law on Gender Equality and Law on Prevention and Control of Domestic Violence all provide the role and responsibilities of institutions in the state apparatus from the central to local levels in protecting women and juveniles exposed to violence. Particularly for cyberspace violence, the Law on Cyberinformation Security and Law on Cybersecurity specifically define the role and responsibilities of the Government and the Ministries of Information and Communications; Public Security; Education and Training; Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs, and other related ministries, ministerial-level agencies and provincial-level People’s Committees. All subjects within the ambit of their tasks and powers are responsible for protecting people against violations of law in general and acts of violence against women and juveniles in cyberspace.
Over the recent years, concerned state agencies have introduced numerous measures to protect confidential information of the private life of citizens in general, and women and juveniles in particular, in cyberspace. The Vietnamese government has also taken measures and carried out specific activities to help victims of cyber violence and abuse, particularly women and juveniles. The Ministry of Public Security and Ministry of Information and Communications have regularly received information from agencies, organizations and individuals, and evaluated and classified safety levels for juveniles based on such information, announced a list of information networks, and online services and products according to safety levels for juveniles, detected and removed images, documents and information inappropriate to juveniles, and organized the implementation of public communication measures to improve knowledge of juveniles’ parents about protecting themselves and their children in cyberspace.
Besides, the participation of social and mass organizations in the protection of women and juveniles against cyberspace violence is also very important. The Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union and the Vietnam Women’s Union are two among existing socio-political and social organizations that have greatly contributed to programs and projects on prevention of violence against women and juveniles in general and violence against them in cyberspace in particular. Throughout the country, these Unions’ grassroots chapters have developed models for women and juveniles to have opportunities to access knowledge and improve their capacity to protect themselves from violent acts and raise their voice when being exposed to violence in general and to cyberspace violence in particular.
In the domain of information security, the relevant laws also define the responsibility of businesses dealing in cyberinformation security products and services to refuse providing such products and services upon detecting organizations or individuals violating regulations on use of cyberinformation security products and services or breaching their commitments on use of products and services provided by those businesses, which are also responsible for reporting, and coordinating with one another and with functional agencies in handling, violent acts against women and juveniles in cyberspace.
However, in Vietnam’s reality, the protection of citizens’ safety in cyberspace has encountered not a few difficulties. The investigation and handling of recent cases of sexual assault against juveniles have shown that the main tricks of criminals are to set up virtual “chat” rooms and forums on the Internet and provide access to video games online, etc., in order to approach and make acquaintance with juveniles in order to deceive or lure them into sexual intercourses or participate in juvenile prostitution, and even to traffic under-16 juveniles. Unfortunately, the majority of women and juveniles do not have enough knowledge about information technology and cyberspace to fully grasp contents they receive from cyberspace and therefore cannot fully protect themselves against its adverse impacts.
There still exist legal limitations and inadequacies in the protection of women and juveniles from cyberspace violence, including (i) lack of effective regulations on prevention and combat of abuse acts, particularly those on protection and support and on interdisciplinary coordination in protecting women and juveniles in cyberspace; (ii) lack of comprehensive and integrated technical measures and solutions and technology applications applied by businesses, service providers and users in harmony with those applied by the National Telephone Switchboard for protecting women and juveniles in cyberspace; (iii) failure of network service providers to control, classify and give prompt warnings about malicious contents; (iv) limited number and professional quality of officers engaged in the protection of women and juveniles while the country has not yet formed an effective network for women and juvenile rescue and protection and social relief establishments have not yet formulated separate schemes on protection of women and juveniles from cyberspace violence; (v) and low efficiency of the international cooperation in the protection of women and juveniles in cyberspace, particularly in the verification, investigation and handling of cases involving exploited and abused women and juveniles.
From the above analyses, we recommend of the following measures to strengthen the protection of Vietnamese women and juveniles in cyberspace:
Firstly, continuing to improve the legal framework and policies on inter-disciplinary coordination in the protection of women and juveniles in cyberspace.
This measure aims to help women and juveniles interact in a healthy and creative manner in cyberspace. In the coming time, it is necessary to build a network for protection of women and juveniles in cyberspace which can provide tools and means to protect and support them in cyberspace.
At the same time, a code of conduct for the protection of women and juveniles in cyberspace should be developed together with a mechanism for coordination in receiving and processing information about, investigating and handling acts of abuse against women and juveniles in cyberspace and an inter-disciplinary mechanism for monitoring crimes of sexual assault against women and juveniles in cyberspace.
Provisions concerning the protection of women and juveniles in cyberspace should be increased in legal documents on information technology in general and cybersecurity in particular. The process of perfection of the cybersecurity regulations and policies must be participated by more and more women and juveniles or organizations representing their voices and aspirations.
Press and radio and television broadcasting agencies and grassroots information systems should intensify public communication among the entire population about the protection of and assistance for women and juveniles in cyberspace; develop propaganda materials, organize training courses for, and provide information to, reporters, editors and journalists engaged in the information technology-based practical protection of women and juveniles in cyberspace, and update technology trends to support women and juveniles in joining healthy and creative interactions in cyberspace.
Greater attention should be paid to communicating and disseminating knowledge and skills for protecting women and juveniles in cyberspace among officers, civil servants, public employees and people assigned with the task of protecting women and juveniles as well as the network of women and juvenile protection collaborators. The hotlines of the National Telephone Switchboard for the women and juvenile protection should be displayed more frequently on central and local television channels in order to receive information and reports on abuses and assaults against women and juveniles and publicize contact addresses of consulting and emergency relief centers and organizations.
Women and juveniles should be provided with more training courses on skills for self-protection against abuses and assaults and for healthy and creative interaction in cyberspace. The training in “digital skills” for women and juveniles of different age groups should be incorporated in various education curricula and programs. E-portals, online applications and information channels (fanpages) should be installed on online social networks with large numbers of users in the country in order to help women and juveniles search, receive and disseminate information, express their opinions and aspirations via various information and communication channels suitable to their maturity, needs and capacity. The broadcasting duration and contents of news should be increased to improve the social awareness about the importance and truthfully reflect the practical state of the protection of women and juveniles in cyberspace in accordance with law.
Secondly, intensifying the implementation of technical measures and solutions and technology applications in the protection of women and juveniles in cyberspace.
Technical solutions should be rolled out to automatically receive feedback of businesses, service providers and users on the Internet about cases related to abuse and assaults against women and juveniles in cyberspace. Technical systems should be built to facilitate the data connection and sharing and information collection and analysis in order to eliminate malicious contents harmful to women and juveniles and monitor telecommunications and Internet service providers in quickly and promptly blocking and removing contents likely to lead to juvenile abuse in cyberspace upon requests of functional agencies.
More online notification channels should be built, upgraded or integrated to promptly notify matters related to the protection of women and juveniles in cyberspace to the National Telephone Switchboard. Models of and regulations on management of online classrooms and provision of instructions to schools and teachers regarding assurance of information security and safe cyberspace participation by teachers and educational administrators should be developed. Technical solutions should be implemented at schools to monitor, block or filter local accesses to contents in violation of law and contents inappropriate to pupils of different age groups and connect and share monitoring and filtering data with the Ministry of Information and Communications.
Programs and activities should be implemented to support and encourage businesses to develop innovations and provide information security technical solutions to protect safe interactions of women and juveniles in cyberspace.
Thirdly, perfecting the organizational structure and raising the law enforcement capacity in the protection of women and juveniles in cyberspace.
This measure aims to improve the organizational structure, and train and retrain personnel to meet professional requirements and promptly respond to matters related to women and juveniles in cyberspace. More women and juvenile protection tasks should be assigned to social relief establishments to intensify the provision of counseling and psychological to women and juveniles who have been abused in cyberspace. Information and communication technology products and services should be evaluated and announced on the basis of law-specified criteria and use requirements in order to effectively support training, learning and teaching activities. Related ministries and agencies should coordinate with one another in forming working teams for inspection of the performance of the tasks of protecting women and juveniles in cyberspace.
Reports on assessment of the practical protection of, and provision of support for, healthy and creative interactions of women and juveniles in Vietnam’s cyberspace should be made and disclosed every year.
Fourthly, intensifying international cooperation on the protection of women and juveniles in cyberspace.
This measure aims to facilitate or propose the participation of Vietnam’s authorities and organizations in international organizations and commitments on protection of women and juveniles in cyberspace; provide contents on the protection of women and juveniles in cyberspace in international rankings and assessments; enhance connectivity, technology transfer and international cooperation in the assurance of information security for women and juveniles in cyberspace; mobilize official development assistance (ODA) sources for programs and projects on protecting and helping women and juveniles in cyberspace.
The international exchange and cooperation in the assurance of information security for women in areas where they reside, work or study and juveniles at schools should be promoted. International cooperation should also be intensified in prevention and fighting of crimes, particularly crimes against women and juveniles in cyberspace. Coordination with law enforcement forces of foreign countries should be enhanced in order to verify, investigate and handle cases involving Vietnamese women and juveniles who are exploited and abused in cyberspace via the channels of the Interpol cooperation and mutual legal assistance in criminal matters.-