The Chinese government is a well-known Internet censor, but the country is not the only Asian nation blocking web content. Now at least one of China's neighbours is adopting similar tactics and tightening their own grips on the flow of information.
The Communist government of Vietnam, already an active censor of websites with political or religious content considered threatening to its one-party system, is improving the technical sophistication, breadth, and effectiveness of its filtering technology.
This is the finding of research published in a new report on Internet censorship in Vietnam by the OpenNet Initiative, a partnership between the University of Toronto, Harvard University, Oxford University and the University of Cambridge.
The report, published August 9th, said the restrictions on the Vietnamese Internet websites, email, blogs, and online discussion forums are similar to those imposed by China, relying on laws, technical controls, and education to restrict access to information.
"It seems inescapable that the state's online information control will deepen and grow," the report said. "Vietnam's Internet filtering regime, more than any other that ONI has studied, shows dramatic change over time and bears careful monitoring of its development."
There is no definitive proof that governments in China and Vietnam are collaborating on their censorship tactics and technology, but anecdotal indications suggest it, according to Derek Bambauer, a research fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School.
"As far as filtering political content, they're moving into China's neighborhood," he says, estimating that the Vietnamese block anywhere from two-thirds to 80 percent of sites about opposition political parties, freedom of religion, human rights, and political dissidents. The Chinese government, by comparison, is even more effective; for example, it snuffs out as much as 95 percent of sites dedicated to one particular group, Falun Gong.
Most Vietnamese access the Internet at cybercafe's, whose owners are required by the government to monitor the websites their customers visit and block access to banned sites. In addition, the state security services, local police, and even employees of the Internet service providers all supervise online content.
Nevertheless, the Vietnamese government lacks the resources of its Chinese counterparts to devote to online content control and is also hamstrung by an underdeveloped infrastructure. Officials have acknowledged that some Vietnamese sites in the top-level domains are hosted on servers overseas because of the country's poor telecommunication system.
"It's clear to us that a lot of countries are following the China model," Bambauer says. "They want to have the Internet for economic growth and its benefits for education, but they also want to keep a lid on some of the challenges the Internet poses to an authoritarian system."
Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based organization that defends press freedom, wrote to the Hanoi government in late June asking for pardons for two cyber-dissidents, Pham Hong Son, a physician and marketing executive with a pharmaceutical company, and Nguyen Vu Binh, a former journalist with an official Communist Party newspaper, who are serving prison sentences of five and seven years, respectively.
Their "only crime was to express their opinions on the Internet," the group wrote in the letter.
Three other people, Truong Quoc Tuan, Truong Quoc Huy, and Lisa Pham, were arrested in October 2005 for taking part in pro-democracy discussion forums on Paltalk.com, a free voice and video instant messenger service, according to Reporters Without Borders.
In contrast to many other governments that censor the Internet, Vietnam relies on its own lists of prohibited sites, which concentrate on Vietnamese-language content, rather on than commercial filtering software, which is considered more adept at blocking broad categories of material but predominantly in English, OpenNet Initiative found.
The ONI report said that the country's two ISPs use different methods to prevent access to banned sites. One shows a block page informing the user why a URL cannot be accessed while the other simply says that the site does not exist, having removed it from its domain name servers. It is the first instance of DNS-based filtering that OpenNet Initiative has observed.
That more subtle approach may disguise the government's intentions and cost less to implement, but it also opens a window for technically savvy users, who could circumvent the restrictions by switching their computer settings to another DNS server.
"Vietnam is likely to accept that a small number of skilled users can bypass its technical filtering measures since its multi-modal approach will keep the vast majority of users within bounds of permissible behaviour," ONI wrote in its report.
The group, which found that both ISPs try to block some popular anonymizer services that allow users to bypass filtering, tested just over 2,800 URLs and noticed that the filters tightened between November 2005 and March 2006. For example, the blocking roughly doubled on material about Vietnamese dissidents.
ONI maintains a global list of 870 websites, all in English, that it tests in every country, as well as a separate list built to target the most sensitive sites in a given location. For Vietnam, that consisted of about 47 percent in Vietnamese, 43 percent in English and 10 percent in French. The country was a French colony from 1884 to 1954.
The group also conducts Google queries in the native language, clicking on the top 10 to 50 sites for each query, and then compares the results with the websites it can access from outside the country. In Vietnam, ONI also checked links from saigonbao.com, a blocked site with links to many other sensitive pages.
"We want to see if you typed the name of a dissident in a search engine when you're sitting in a cybercafe in Saigon, how many links could you get to if you started searching on them," Bambauer says.
In an interesting twist to its filtering activities, the Vietnamese government officially says its target is sexually explicit content, but ONI found that in fact almost none of this material is blocked.
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