At the end of last month, a U.S.-government organization called the Open Technology Fund released a detailed research report on the state of Internet access and openness in Vietnam that included some very interesting findings. Among them is the fact that Vietnam’s netizens appear to be the heaviest users of censorship circumvention tools in the world.
In ADLP’s third podcast, I talk with Adam Lynn, a senior policy analyst with the Open Technology Fund and one of the creators of that report. The OTF was created in early 2012 from U.S. Government funds as a program of Radio Free Asia to promote global Internet freedom and combat online censorship. It focuses on increasing access to the web, raising awareness of security and privacy threats to users, and providing tools for dealing with it all.
In our conversation, Adam and I discuss that one of the ways China really differs from Vietnam and other nations where the Internet is restricted is in China’s cultivation of domestic applications. While most people elsewhere are using Facebook, Chinese users are using Weibo or QQ. Vietnamese users are relying almost exclusively on applications and servers that are not domestic, like Facebook, Google, Viber, and YouTube.
“Almost half of the connected population of Vietnam utilises an alternative domain name server provider. That’s a percentage we’re unaware of existing anywhere else.”
Regarding censorship in Vietnam, there’s nothing like a Great Firewall there, though there’s sporadic blocking of a number of external websites such as the BBC, Radio Free Asia, Human Rights Watch, and social media platforms like WordPress, Twitter and Facebook. “There’s still a great deal of censorship in Vietnam,” Lynn says, “but much of it occurs in the form of offline repression — not necessarily from a website being blocked in a rigorous way but perhaps the government getting a better understanding of who’s going to that website by letting people visit it. Or by identifying those who are publishing prohibited content and arresting them in an offline environment.”
One of the more significant findings of the OTF report was the pervasiveness of circumvention tools.
“Almost half of the connected population of Vietnam utilises an alternative domain name server provider,” Lynn says. “That’s a percentage we’re unaware of existing anywhere else. There’s a tremendous amount of circumvention occurring in Vietnam. And when more rigorous censorship is introduced” — around sensitive, time-specific national news events such as party congresses, bauxite mining, or introduction of the social media-restricting Decree 72 — “we also see that users at those times find ways around those increased blocks, too.”
Lynn says the OTF report looked especially at Facebook in Vietnam, which has been unofficially blocked at the DNS level there for nearly five years but is nonetheless very popular. “When the government first began blocking Facebook in 2009, there were about 200,000 users,” he observes. “Today there may be more than 25 million, and the site’s been largely blocked throughout that time across all Internet service providers.”
Lynn notes that not everyone who’s logging onto Facebook in Vietnam is looking to participate in a discussion on democracy. “And so when the government implements these heavy-handed [censorship] tactics, they create a whole new class of Internet users who are now circumvention experts. And down the line, if other sites or platforms are blocked, those folks already have the knowledge to access them. Once you let that cat out of the bag, it’s very difficult to put it back in.”
That’s precisely the point Ethan Zuckerman of the Berkman Center for Internet of Society has made in describing what he calls a “cute cat theory of Internet activism.” This theory suggests that Internet tools like Facebook, designed to let ordinary users publish non-political content, can be quite useful for activism for a number of reasons. First, they are difficult for governments to censor without censoring innocuous content (e.g. cute cats), thus alerting citizens to the fact of censorship. Zuckerman also maintains that popular consumer tools can “tap the latent capacity” of non-activist users to create and disseminate activist content. In this view, blunt censorship ironically creates more dissent and activism rather than less — because, as in Vietnam, users are likely to be motivated to circumvent censorship to access the blocked content, therefore making even non-activist users comfortable with censorship circumvention — and with the creation and dissemination of what may be perceived as activist content.
Lynn and I also discussed some of the many paradoxes of the Facebook block in Vietnam. Although the government appears to have instructed all local ISP and telcos to block the site beginning in late 2009, it has never officially acknowledged doing so, maintaining that Facebook has been encountering “technical problems” in Vietnam since then. There’s also the curious fact that Facebook has one of its highest global uptake rates among Vietnamese netizens: approximately 75 percent of the connected population has a Facebook account (in the US, that figure in 55 percent). And hundreds of thousands of local businesses openly market themselves and even do business on Facebook in Vietnam; it’s become a crucial element of the local economy (surely one reason the block has not been made more rigorous). As Lynn observes, even the ISPs and telcos responsible for blocking Facebook promote their own Facebook pages on their websites.
“Despite that it is blocked, hundreds of thousands of local businesses openly market themselves and even do business on Facebook in Vietnam; it’s become a crucial element of the local economy.”
Another fascinating result of the block has been the rise in popularity of a Russian-funded search engine called “CốcCốc,” which claims to provide more accurate local results than Google — long the most popular search provider in Vietnam — and to better accommodate the tricky diacritic marks that are so important to written Vietnamese. CốcCốc also has developed a web browser (called Cờ Rôm+, if you can believe it. “The browser has a small proxy setting that’s built in that allows users to route around some of the milder blocks and censored sites,” Lynn explains. “It says on the download page that one feature of it is that you can access Facebook comfortably.”
Finally, the OTF report confirms one aspect of Vietnamese online culture that I’ve observed in my own research: “One of the interesting things about Facebook being the driver of so much of this is that these tools appear much more widely used for access than for security,” Lynn says. “Vietnamese users seemed to care little about privacy.” This is almost exactly what I found in in looking at unique Vietnamese conceptions of online personal privacy in 2012. Unlike in the West, Vietnam’s netizens appear relatively unconcerned about tracking or surveillance from the government or other organizations, and seem to have little regard for privacy policies or legal protections (which mostly don’t exist). “Privacy,” for most there, is limited to confidentiality — just keeping valuable information, like passwords and bank accounts, safe.
Follow the Open Transparency Fund’s projects on Twitter at @OpenTechFund and find them online at https://www.opentechfund.org/.