HANOI, Vietnam — Upon first glance, the Nokia billboards for the new C3 phone were not remarkable in any way.
Vietnam, like many countries in the region, is mobile phone-crazy, and ads for different companies pepper major cities.
But what was remarkable about this particular ad campaign was that it promoted the phones’ access to Facebook chat — which, along with the rest of Facebook, is blocked in Vietnam.
How can a company get away with such a brazen breach of the block?
For starters experts say it isn’t much of a block. Vietnam’s answer to China’s Great Firewall is more of a smoldering bamboo fence — an inconvenience more than an outright prohibition.
Like China, Vietnam has been struggling to take advantage of the openness offered by the internet while maintaining its tight hold on the flow of information. Vietnam’s block is one of many measures undertaken recently to curb online activism and other internet activities deemed “harmful” by authorities.
Vietnam first blocked Facebook toward the end of 2009, as part of a haphazard block that the government has never directly acknowledged. A supposed draft regulation outlining eight blocked sites, including Facebook, made the rounds on the internet. Soon after, various internet service providers (ISPs) started blocking the social networking site, sometimes for days.
But a couple weeks later, everyone was fiddling with their domain name system (DNS) settings to get around the firewall or using Facebook Lite, a pared-down version that was still accessible.
Marketing consultant Nguyen Thanh Hai said, via Facebook chat, “it’s not a strong block, you just change the DNS.”
Unlike China, which blocks websites at an ISP level, Vietnam does so at the DNS level. What this means, as one IT expert explained, is that the government simply tells service providers to redirect their servers away from sites as opposed to actually blocking their access. The upshot is that it’s easier to circumnavigate Vietnam’s firewall than it is China’s, where an estimated 30,000 censors search for illicit content on the internet.
“This is trivially easy to circumvent,” said the IT expert, who wished to remain anonymous. “All you need do is change your DNS provider to one of the publicly available ones. Google DNS is a great example.”
The ease of the workaround and no official mention of sanctions mean Facebook users, which number over a million in Vietnam, can plead innocence. Users chat online, tag photos and play Farm Ville.
Overseas businesses in Vietnam, apart from Nokia, continue to advertise on Facebook, though some say off the record that they worry about the legality of doing so. Some, such as skin care line Clean and Clear, use Zing, a locally produced social networking site popular with a younger demographic than Facebook. Nokia could not be reached for comment.
Unlike a widely publicized 2008 government regulation that told bloggers in Vietnam what they could and could not write about, the Facebook block was barely mentioned by government officials.
Local news site Vietnam Net Bridge reported in its lead story, weeks after the block began: “The Foreign Ministry has confirmed that in response to public concern, official agencies are evaluating the contents of certain social websites.”
Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga said, “a number of social websites have been misused to convey information with contents (sic) that oppose the Democratic Socialist Republic of Vietnam … threatening information security.”
Without saying much Nga confirmed that the government blocked Facebook for the reasons analysts suspected: a group of activists started a page opposing the country’s multi-billion dollar bauxite mine in the Central Highlands.
Vietnam has one of the higher rates of internet penetration regionally, at over 25 percent. Blogging has been common for many years and gaming is so popular that treatment centers have opened to treat those addicted to it. Even small suburban cafes offer high-speed WiFi, usually for free.
In the past few years, the government has cracked down on bloggers, arresting many and throwing some in jail. The government has been accused of cyber spying and hacking into sites it deems harmful.
China blocked Facebook in July 2008, and soon thereafter also blocked YouTube and Twitter. It didn’t take long before Vietnam followed China’s lead with internet filters.
“China’s sheer size and resources make it very different from Vietnam. I think Vietnam has the political will but lacks the resources. Vietnam has always been more moderate than China in a comparative sense,” said professor Carlyle Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy.
Criticism of Vietnam’s efforts has been strong. Human Rights Watch condemned the blocks, blogger arrests and the proposed spy software which is supposed to be installed in all public computers in Hanoi by 2011.
At an ASEAN summit in Hanoi in April, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed concern. “In Vietnam, access to popular social networking sites has suddenly disappeared,” she said and went on to condemn the blogger arrests and alleged hacking of activist and other sites.
British Ambassador Mark Kent has blogged in Vietnamese and English for more than two years at his embassy’s website. The embassy launched its Facebook page in Vietnam after the block took effect. It gains three new friends each day, according to the embassy.
“No-one in government has said [Facebook] was blocked. … It doesn’t appear to have had a lasting effect, as people have found ways” around it, he said.
“We’ve been quite clear that unwarranted internet restrictions are harmful to a developing society. The way this country got where it is through opening up to the rest of the world,” he added.
Overseas democracy group, Viet Tan, recently began a No Firewall campaign. “It is very encouraging that the majority of Facebook users know how to access it,” said Viet Tan spokeswoman Angelina Do via email. “However, they are still a minority of internet users in Vietnam. … The need for circumvention knowledge and digital security understanding is very necessary for Vietnam as a whole.”