Vietnam's New Green Dam?

Vietnam is continuing its steep fall down a slippery slope of Internet censorship and filtration and is raising more concerns over its new cyber-technology implementation.

Internet censorship is nothing new to Vietnam, yet its policies have remained very much out of the public spotlight in other parts of the world. The Communist government of Vietnam has taken many opaque technological and regulatory steps to control its citizens’ access to Internet content. With an above average Internet penetration rate of 25.7%, and a relatively high literacy rate for the adult population, the Internet would be potentially poised to allow substantial free expression that may oppose the government regime.

With that fear in mind, the government has increasingly cracked down on what it considers improper Internet communication and behavior, and a new regulation, enacted in April of this year, only added a new facet to their expanding iron grip of control.

In Decision No. 15/2010/QD-UBND, the government enacted a mandate of “Stipulations on the management, provision, and the use of Internet services at retail locations in Hanoi City.”

This most notably includes the installation of a mystery server-side application that needs to be installed in retail Internet locations (i.e. Cybercafés). While the workings of this software, developed by National University of Hanoi, have not yet become public knowledge, most are convinced that this is yet another method of Internet filtration or surveillance employed by the restrictive Vietnamese regime, and one can’t help but draw connections to China’s Green Dam program.

It does seem though, that they have learned from some of the Chinese Government’s obstacles.

After the Green Dam debacle last year, with substantial international public outcry, China no longer required their filtration and surveillance package to be shipped with new PCs. Instead, they have only continued to mandate its use on school, Internet café, and other public use Internet access points.

The message taped along the top of the monitor in a Cybercafé warns against accessing "depraved" or "reactionary" materials online.

Taking this cue, it appears that Vietnam, possibly to avoid too many direct comparisons to its PR troubled neighbor to the North, only forced this software on to public access computers, and even then, they made the software exist on the servers rather than in each individual computer.

While it may be a smarter PR move, its implications are still just as dangerous and leave many questions in the minds of Internet freedom activists around the world.

Besides obvious concerns over the purely technical side of what this software can and cannot do, the policy leaves some ambiguity in its breadth. While it is clear that it will apply to Internet cafes, what about other types of services that have Internet access included as part of their fee (like a hotel room for instance). Will that qualify as a retail location, since the Internet is paid for in part by the customer?

Even assuming that the software is only placed in Internet cafes, we have to ask if this policy will expand beyond the limits of Hanoi City. Since the use of Internet cafes is Vietnam is very prolific and considered the main means of internet access for a vast number of Vietnamese, the expanse of this regulation outside of Hanoi would, effectively, lead to surveillance and filtration software being used directly on most of the population.

So why isn’t this regulation getting much press?

The media has remained distant from this issue in a surprising way. Besides a few articles being written when the Vietnamese government first released this regulation, there has been little chatter or commentary about the issue. Last week, Computer World re-introduced the topic with an article, but it’s hard to ignore this vacuous space existing around this in the press.

Under the shadow of China, and its unpopular Internet policies, Vietnam has been lost in the crowd. Even while its regime has been on a constant move to control access to information, and it continues to restrict any transparency into exactly what it is manipulating with Internet technology, the press is mostly ignoring these developments.

But that can only last so long.