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Report: Vietnam Tightens Its Grip On Web Content

China isn't the only Asian nation quashing Internet freedom, according to a new report. The Vietnamese government apparently also mimics the policies of its larger neighbor.
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 willing 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 behavior," 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 Web sites, 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 Web sites 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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Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing