Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

VIETNAM: Prospects of Total Facebook Blackout Loom Large

Nguyen Nam

HO CHI MINH CITY, Nov 25 2009 (IPS) - While much of the world is busy chatting with friends or posting photos via Facebook, Internet users in Vietnam are worried that government restrictions on access to this popular social networking site could soon evolve into a total blackout, assuming it isn’t so yet.

While some individuals are still able to access Facebook via their Internet service providers, difficulties have been increasing and most think the site will soon be inaccessible except via proxies or an Open DNS set-up.

Since early this month, access to Facebook has been intermittently inaccessible in communist Vietnam, but the government has publicly denied responsibility.

Workers at some companies such as Vietnam Post and Telecommunications and FPT Telecom admitted to the foreign media that they had been ordered by government officials to block Facebook, which has one million Vietnamese users. Earlier this year it introduced a Vietnamese language function.

Since August an unverified government circular has been doing the rounds on the Internet, instructing the country’s Internet service providers to block several sites, including Facebook. Until the latter showed signs of disappearing, many believed the document to be a hoax, thanks to a lack of an official stamp.

Other sites listed, such as ‘viettalk24’, could not be accessed as of early this week. Zing Me, a social networking site very similar to Facebook and owned by Vietnamese company VinaGame is not blocked.

“The crackdown against Facebook is part of a larger government drive, led by the public security forces, to control all forms of electronic communication and expression in Vietnam,” Professor Carl Thayer told IPS via email.

The Vietnam expert with the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra said that earlier this year a group of activists against Chinese bauxite mining in Vietnam’s Central Highlands had organised via Facebook. Thayer surmised this was part of the reason for the Facebook blackout in Vietnam.

The multi-billion dollar project has drawn widespread criticism, with environmental concerns and distrust of Vietnam’s huge northern neighbour topping the list. Even General Vo Nguyen Giap, who led the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and is revered as a national hero, wrote an editorial denouncing the project.

This year protests over China have become heated, worrying both the government and Beijing. The issue of the oil-rich Spratly Paracel Islands, ownership of which is disputed by both nations, is also a contentious one.

Eighty-six million-strong Vietnam has over 20 million Internet users and one of the fastest rates of uptake in the world. Internet gaming cafes, for instance, are common in all cities, and even remote towns have online access.

In only a few years the Internet has become a huge force in the communist nation, which tightly controls all media. Although there is yet no censorship and surveillance tool in Vietnam similar to neighbouring China’s ‘Great Firewall’, human rights and democracy sites are often blocked.

Worried about the power the Internet is gaining as a tool to spread information and organise politically, Vietnam last year introduced laws restricting blog posts to the personal, with sanctions against the political. Many questioned how these could be enforced when Vietnam has at least one and a half million blogs.

However, several bloggers, many critical of China’s growing influence in Vietnam, were arrested earlier this year and nine pro-democracy activists were sentenced to jail terms of up to six years in October.

Experts and observers, including expatriates, say this is all part of a drive by the government to get things in order before the 11th National Party Congress in January 2011 and stifle any possible dissent.

One foreign communications consultant, who preferred to stay unnamed, told IPS “it [Facebook] is probably the least revolutionary tool in the social media armoury. But it appears it is happening. Banning it can only impact negatively in so many ways and threaten Vietnam’s development.”

He named micro-blogging site Twitter, another social networking site, as the more influential compared to Facebook. It remains accessible in Vietnam, though some worry that it and video-site YouTube may be next.

To sidestep the state directive on Facebook, many have resorted to using proxies to access the popular social networking site or a watered-down version, ‘Facebook Lite’.

“A block does not have to be complete to be real… a partial block is all that’s needed to kill off the widespread use of Facebook,” read one Vietnam-based website, Huy Zing. This has been the case in neighbouring China, where, after the government blocked Facebook, users dropped from one million to 14,000. Local versions picked up more users as a result. According to its own figures, Vietnamese site Zing Me already has close to one million users.

“In many respects Vietnam follows China’s lead,” said Thayer. Just as in China, a strong economy deters other nations from publicly questioning its domestic policy. “Vietnam is increasingly seen by senior foreign policy, defence and security officials as an emerging strategic player in the region. Vietnam has been able to repress dissent at home and get increased commitments of development assistance from the international donor community at the same time.”

The irony, according to sources, is that the overwhelming majority of Facebook users do employ it for purely personal reasons, to chat with friends, post photos and play games.

Earlier this year, the site made news in Vietnam when it was discovered that office workers across the country were spending working hours playing the application ‘Farm Buddy’, where players maintain virtual farms. Although some found it ironic that office workers in a nation with a rural population of over 70 percent were playing virtual farming games, it forced many businesses to block the site in-house for reasons of productivity, not politics.

Blogs on the now-defunct platform Yahoo 360, such as ‘Tac Ke’ (a type of chameleon lizard), were more incendiary, posting photos of Catholic protests and other events the large state-owned mainstream media would not mention.

Although there has been little international outcry against the government’s suppression of Facebook, there have been dark mutterings from the country’s expat community, which uses the site to keep in contact with friends and family at home. Apolitical Vietnamese youth have been posting angry messages online, calling the block “stupid”.

British Ambassador Mark Kent, who keeps a blog in Vietnamese on the embassy website, wrote in English, on Nov. 16, “I am very impressed with the way our colleagues in the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs set up their Facebook page. It seems there have been a few technical problems in accessing Facebook recently – I hope they are resolved soon as this is a very useful tool.”

According to an official statement from Facebook, “We would be very disappointed if users in any country were to have trouble accessing Facebook.”

Thayer likened the crackdown on Internet bloggers to Star Wars storm troopers entering cyberspace. “They may have occasional victories, but they cannot conquer the entire electronic universe,” he said.

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