Vietnam’s Love-Hate Affair with the Internet

The Vietnamese authorities’ continuing attack on dissent, free speech and a free Internet is exemplified by the trumped up tax evasion approval by a Hanoi appeals court earlier this month that sent the human rights lawyer and blogger Le Quoc Quan to jail for 30 months.

Hundreds of supporters wearing demonstrated outside the court for Quan, convicted last October by a lower court. He had been in detention since December 2012. A European Union delegation, representatives from the United States and Canadian governments and a small group of journalists were present at the trial.

In fact, the government has a complex, love-hate relationship with the Internet, complicated by the fact that it believed erroneously that control would be easy and that circumventing even basic blocks would be beyond the ability of many. That was news to the country’s internet users, who have been energetically getting around programs designed to keep them in their place.

Though classified as an “enemy of the Internet” by Reporters Without Borders for its blocking of websites and arrests of bloggers and journalists, Vietnam’s Communist government has done an awful lot to ensure access. The country has long valued literacy and learning and according to Professor Carlyle Thayer at the Australian Defense Force Academy, the government believed that the “knowledge era” was key to the nation’s economic development.

The Internet helped to provide that and greater world integration, something Hanoi has been increasingly keen for since doi moi in 1986 when the country began a period of economic renovation, shunning its former isolationist politics.

Twenty years ago the Vietnam Communist Party (CPV) noted three dangers facing the country: corruption, deviation from the socialist path and falling behind. The Internet was seen a perfect way to engage more with the world.

“Vietnam has seen a more rapid growth of the Internet over the last few years than most other countries in the region and is one of the fastest growing Internet countries in the world,” according to a 2011 report by market research firm Cimigo, headquartered in Ho Chi Minh City. “Since the year 2000, the number of Internet users in Vietnam has multiplied by about 120 times.”

Putting the genie back in the bottle The state uses three main laws against bloggers, activists and others whom the state dislikes. Criminal Code Article 88 relates to “conducting propaganda against the state.” A second is Article 258, relating to “abusing democratic freedoms,” and Article 79 covers “activities aimed overthrowing the Communist Party of Vietnam and People’s Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” However numerous other Internet laws have been drafted, largely aimed at keeping citizens’ net activities restricted to useful research or harmless entertainment. This has stymied growth in some ways, as it is only now that businesses are as present online as individuals.

In August 2008 Decree 97 made it illegal to “abuse” the Internet to oppose the government. What got more attention was Circular 7, restricting bloggers to cover only personal, not political, topics. At the time blogging was a favored pastime in Vietnam and Yahoo! 360 the favored platform. Interest in blogging and blogs in general has since waned significantly. According to Cimigo, in 2009 40 percent of Internet users visited blogs and 20 percent blogged themselves. By 2011 those numbers had halved as people increasingly moved to social media sites like Facebook.

It was the quiet blockage of Facebook in 2009 that caught the world’s attention. The government never mentioned a ban publicly although a purported scan of instructions to ISPs to block the site did rounds online. As the government never said much, Vietnam’s legion of Facebook users simply muttered something about “technical problems” as they “fixed” the DNS settings to access the site. Nokia was advertising Facebook apps on its new phones when the site was still technically blocked (http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/vietnam/100928/facebook-internet-china-press-freedom)

In 2010 the government tried to launch its own social networking site (which led to headlines such as ‘In Communist Vietnam, State Friends You’), go.vn, where users had to provide their full names and ID card details, but could also “friend” Communist luminaries. The Minister for Culture and Information Le Doan Hop praised the site’s usefulness for young people and promotion of “culture, values and benefits.” Shockingly, perhaps, it has never managed to be a serious rival to Facebook or even local entertainment site Zing.

In 2010 came a decision requiring all public hotels to install Green Dam monitoring software. Theoretically it allowed the government to see what was being looked at, possibly by whom and take appropriate steps. In fact decision 15/2010/QD-UBND was something of a paper tiger; many pointed out how such a piecemeal and scattershot approach would have limited utility and could be wholly circumvented by any serious activist, though rights organizations took the appropriate potshots as a matter of course.

In 2010 a ban was put in place, ostensibly on all online gaming between 10pm and 6am, to combat gaming addiction. However, it was never fully possible to enforce thanks to most popular gaming sites being hosted by overseas servers.

The most recent attempts at curbing net use via legislation has been Decree-Law 72 on Management of the Internet which formally came into effect in September 2013. Like many laws it is confusing and vague enough to be useful for any enthusiastic government prosecutor. Among other things it banned the sharing of news online. Or, rather, it banned the aggregation of news onto websites. The government took the time to publicly respond to the flurry of foreign concern and the head of the Ministry of Information and Culture’s Online Information Section protested to Reuters that the law did not violate any of Vietnam’s human rights commitments. “We will never ban people from sharing information or linking news from websites,” he said, arguing it had been misinterpreted.

There has been talk that Decree 72 was also designed to protect intellectual property, as violations have long been problematic and go far beyond dollar copies of new Hollywood films on DVD. One of the things 72 supposedly sought to do was prevent websites re-posting news from its original source with no attribution and thus make things easier for news sites whilst also laying groundwork for membership of the Trans Pacific Partnership in regards to intellectual property protection.

The more interesting requirement was that ISPs locate servers, or at least one, within Vietnam and deliver information on users to the government, rather as Internet cafes have been required to do. They were also required to take down anything contravening laws. However Vietnam’s most trafficked sites do not have servers within Vietnam and with such new laws do not entirely see the point, either. Indeed there are not many substantial servers located there at all, and bloggers who fear the law usually host their blogs overseas in any case. Should the government instruct local ISPs to block say, Google, many users will simply respond again to “technical difficulties” by readjusting their settings.

Peaceful evolution, ongoing repression The threat of peaceful and not so peaceful evolution hangs heavily over the heads of those in power in Hanoi.

Vietnam is regularly excoriated for its human rights record which generally means the way the nation locks up its dissidents, bloggers and religious leaders. Even US President Barack Obama made mention of blogger Dieu Cay’s ongoing detention, ostensibly for tax reasons.

According to Human Rights Watch there were at least 63 political prisoners convicted in Vietnam last year. And yet, as Professor Thayer said in a 2011 paper: “Great effort is put into monitoring, controlling and restricting Internet usage. The enormity of resources devoted for these purposes contrasts with the comparatively small number of political activists, religious leaders, and bloggers who have been arrested, tried and sentenced to prison.”

Though the numbers have increased since the above was written there is still little mass organizing in this area, and large scale protests tend to be over more concrete issues: workers’ rights and wages or land grabs. However those considered potentially subversive are closely monitored, watched by both a physical presence and an online one.

There have been many attacks against varied blogs and websites; 16 starting in 2009 and intensifying in April of the next year. Varied activists came under fire: Catholics discussing land issues — there have been ongoing spats between Catholics and the state over land grabs — as well as environmentalists and political agitators. Sites allied to the anti-bauxite movement were also hit.

IP addresses were allegedly traced back to within Vietnam and to addresses connected to the military. The attacks, verified by McAfee and Google, were botnet attacks where spyware hid in seemingly innocuous Vietnamese language keystroke software (though a Romanised alphabet Vietnamese has 29 letters and many diacritics). Neel Mehta, a security expert with Google, wrote in a blog post that: “While the malware itself was not especially sophisticated, it has nonetheless been used for damaging purposes.”

For now, though internet use grows, freedom is at the same stand still of years past.