OpenNet Initiative Vietnam Report: University Research Team Finds an Increase in Internet Censorship in Vietnam

August 05, 2006

Cambridge, MA - The university-based OpenNet Initiative (ONI) today released “Internet Filtering in Vietnam: 2005-2006,” a report that documents the degree and extent to which the government of Vietnam controls the information environment in which its citizens live, including websites, blogs, email, and online discussion forums.

Drawing from technical, legal, and political sources, ONI’s research finds that the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is actively censoring the Internet, focusing its filtering on sites considered threatening to its one-party system. Moreover, the technical sophistication, breadth, and effectiveness of Vietnam’s filtering are increasing with time. Similar to China, Vietnam has taken a multi-layered approach to controlling the Internet; Vietnam applies technical controls, the law, and education to restrict its citizens’ access to and use of information. Vietnam is carrying out this filtering with a notable lack of transparency - while Vietnam claims its blocking efforts are aimed at safeguarding the country against obscene or sexually explicit content, most of its filtering efforts are aimed at blocking sites with politically or religiously sensitive material that could undermine Vietnam’s one-party system.

Key findings:

* Testing revealed that the two primary ISP providers, FPT and VNPT, filtered high percentages of politically sensitive content, including content related to political opposition, pro-democracy movements, and human rights. * Vietnam focuses its efforts on blocking access to sites related to topics that challenge the state’s political orthodoxy, such as those treating political dissidents, political democracy, or the proposed Vietnam Human Rights Act in the US Congress.
* In nearly all cases, sites in the Vietnamese language are far more likely to be blocked than sites in English or French.
* Vietnam has enacted legislation that makes it a crime to use the Internet to oppose the state or to destabilize Vietnam’s security, economy, or social order. This threat of legal sanction or imprisonment further reduces the scope of information freely available via the Internet.
* Vietnam bans tools used to bypass filtering, aiding others to do so, and accessing foreign ISPs via direct dial-up. Entities offering Internet access or on-line services must hold Internet agency registration certificates.
* Most Vietnamese access the Internet from cybercafés, making control over this venue important. Employees and businesses are responsible for inspecting users’ activities and guiding them to comply with applicable regulations, and to prevent, detect, and stop any violations. In August 2004 the Ministry of Culture and Information promulgated instruction requiring cybercafés to track all websites their customers visit, along with the credit card or ID card numbers of customers who visit inappropriate sites.

Vietnam’s policies that govern access to content via the Internet appear to be designed to limit any perceived threats to one-party rule. Targeting specific Internet content for filtering solely with technological means is notoriously difficult. As with China before it, Vietnam is following a path of increasingly strict technological restrictions coupled with a set of daunting legal and social control mechanisms designed to suppress dissent.

Statements from ONI’s principals and researchers:

“Vietnam’s Internet filtering system prevents its citizens from accessing a considerable amount of information on the Web – and it’s not the material that the state claims to target. While Vietnam purports to block sexually explicit content, ONI’s extensive testing found that this justification is a subterfuge for the country’s real goal: keeping politically sensitive material from reaching users. We discovered that Vietnam is getting better at on-line censorship with time. The state has expanded its blocking of material on controversial topics such as dissidents, and its filtering is expanding to cover more types of content at a rapid pace. From controls in cybercafés to vague but harsh laws, Vietnam employs a multi-pronged approach to keeping citizens away from material that might threaten the state’s one-party political system.” - Derek Bambauer, Research fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Harvard Law School

“The ONI's report on Internet filtering in Vietnam confirms what has become a troubling pattern: states around the world are attempting to control their citizens' access to information through non-transparent and unaccountable forms of content filtering. Although the Vietnamese government argues that it is filtering access to socially and culturally offensive material, our research reveals that it is actually blocking access to a far larger set of political content deemed threatening to the regime's authority. Our report also reveals a troubling rise in the number of sites Vietnam is targeting for censorship over the last two years. Moreover, its concentration on blocking access to websites in the Vietnamese language underscores the growing sophistication of Internet content filtering practices around the world.” - Ron Deibert, Director of the Citizen Lab, Munk Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto

"Vietnam's internet censorship regime shares aspects of the Chinese regime, reflecting the close ties between these states. Since 2001, we've seen more and more sophisticated Internet filtering systems put in place. Vietnam's story in another chapter in this unfolding narrative. Internet censorship and surveillance should be at the top of the list of issues to pay attention to for anyone interested in Internet governance." - John Palfrey, Executive Director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society and Clinical Professor of Law at Harvard Law School

ONI is a collaborative partnership between the University of Toronto, Harvard University, Oxford University, and the University of Cambridge. For more information about the OpenNet Initiative, please visit ONI’s website: http://www.opennetinitiative.net

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Last updated February 20, 2008

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