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During a visit to Hanoi last week to celebrate the 15-year anniversary of normalisation of ties between the US and Vietnam, Hillary Clinton said Vietnam was a “great nation”  and then promptly criticised Vietnam’s human rights record and censure of internet freedoms.

The internet is interesting in Vietnam. The country has one of the highest uptakes in the region and penetration is more than 25% of the 86 million population, some three quarters of which is rural.

Unlike Australia, the internet is cheap, high speed and wi-fi is available everywhere. Even small cafes in outer suburbs have wi-fi connections and remote hill towns have online game cafes. These days bloggers are arrested and gaming addicts hospitalised. The change from even 10 years ago has been astonishing.

Internet gaming is insanely popular and recently the first person was hospitalised with an addiction to it. There is already a treatment centre in HCMC for the new problem. Some say it causes crime as teens struggle to pay bills for their hours and hours of online gaming each day.

But the main problem, as in China, comes down to the same thing: freedom of speech.

Not long ago there were reports that Vietnam was following China and planned to install internet filtering software Green Dam, but only in capital Hanoi in all “public” places.

This comes after other measures such as restrictions on blogging — millions of people have blogs and in late 2OO8 it was decreed they could only write on “personal” subjects, no politics — a block of Facebook and the arrest and imprisonment of bloggers and democracy activists.

According to Human Rights Watch, there have also been “cyber attacks” on dissidents and certain websites. “Botnets” were used to spy on people and sometimes attack sites, based in Vietnam and overseas. But it’s the defensive where things are less effective.

The “unofficial” blocking of Facebook has not done much to dent traffic. People are still playing Farm Buddy, posting things and the site can now be read in Vietnamese.

Steve Jackson, a Brit who conducts seminars on social media in Hanoi, said, “A hotel owner manager told me that Facebook events is now the be all and end all of his event marketing. And this in a country where it’s unofficially blocked.”

One source told Crikey that unlike China’s Great Firewall, Vietnam mostly blocks things from the Domain Name System (DNS)  level, making it very easy to circumvent blocks. Block something from the DNS level and all the curious need to do is find another DNS provider, even Google has one. In comparison, blocking something via ISPs gives a far greater level of control.

Various ideas about what effect blocks will have have been put forward. Dissidents will always find a way around. The more important aspect is what effect it will have on the rest of the population. Will the blocking of certain things simply lead to less traffic, or greater curiosity?

An unnamed IT expert said, “The ‘common people’ will begin to notice that certain things that they used to have are now missing. They will begin to search for ways to regain the access that was taken away.”

This does not mean they will track down overseas democracy sites, necessarily, merely that they will continue using Facebook and question why it was ever blocked.

Last year activists and bloggers writing on “sensitive” subjects were arrested; some received prison sentences. Note that the latter are often not of the same political class as the former.

Concern about a multibillion dollar bauxite mine in the Central Highlands united disparate groups, such as Catholics and environmentalists, and immediately worried the government.

This year all “crack downs” are seen as a clean up in the lead up to the 11th Party Congress next year, a five-year event that sets the agenda for coming years and where factions — pro-American versus pro-China, for example — struggle for power behind very closed doors.

The botnet attacks are likely a symptom of this.

Green Dam might be a kick against freedom. Whether it’s effective is the issue. The unnamed IT source said that as it is software that must be installed in every PC a piecemeal approach of only installing it in computers in Hanoi, in public places, might not be totally effective and that, “unless everybody has it, it’s trivially easy to just go to a computer that doesn’t have it”.

That Vietnam is acting like what some have called an enemy of the internet is true.

Whether it’s doing a very good job is up for debate.

Peter Fray

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