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Behind the Bamboo Firewall

·1239 words·6 mins

It was September 2 1945 when the first radio transmission in Vietnamese was broadcasted. The very first modern mass media that the people in Vietnam would listen to aired Ho Chi Minh’s voice declaring the independence of Vietnam. One week later the Voice of Vietnam as the first official Vietnamese radio station was established and started connecting the people in the country. This event can be seen as a crucial turn in Vietnamese media, because radio transmissions do not require any reading skills. Everyone could listen to it and hear the great news of independence.

Less than 50 years later, scholars in Vietnam established the first digital connection among universities. And during the ’90s this intranet was transformed into an internet and had its first connection via Hong Kong to Australia and later to the United States as well. Researches in Vietnam could connect to other scientists around the world in no time at all. But very soon the government considered this new connection to the outside world as a threat for the national ideology. This new kind of mass media distributes information in a decentralized way and enables everyone to become a part of it. The authors can be anyone with an internet connection. Consequently the internet in Vietnam became highly regulated and according to article 33 of the constitution the _bamboo firewall _was enforced.

This figure show the internet usage in Vietnam (red) and the total population (yellow) from 2000 to 2012 with some gaps. Furthermore in the bars it shows the percentage in the bars (relative amount of internet users among the population). Own visualization, source:Internet World Stats
This figure show the internet usage in Vietnam (red) and the total population (yellow) from 2000 to 2012 with some gaps. Furthermore in the bars it shows the percentage in the bars (relative amount of internet users among the population). Own visualization, source:Internet World Stats

From the year 2000 until 2012 the relative amount of internet users grew more than 100 times. Which is a reflection of the economic growth the country is currently experiencing.

A friend of mine who lives in Hanoi recently told me that the Vietnamese government has blocked This means that she could not access any weblog that is hosted by, which are about 35 Million. And curiously about 1.1% of these blogs use Vietnamese as publishing language, which makes it the top 9 of the blog languages.

Clever as Vietnamese people are, she could find a new manual how to adjust her DNS settings in order to access this web-service again. In Vietnam people do these kinds of adjustments very often in order to access Facebook and other services that are being blocked by the bamboo firewall. Almost 5.5 Million people in Vietnam have a Facebook account. Which means that around 6% of the population are surpassing the governmental censorship on Facebook (assuming that all of these users are actually Vietnamese citizens). But facebook is not used secretly. According to my experience, students talk about it openly and publicly refer to facebook in class. And furthermore the Vietnamese media reports also about facebook openly (see ICTNews for example).

But why do the citizens in Vietnam intentionally break the law? Maybe the reason is: because they can! In China it requires more effort to cross the Golden Shield. It can only be overcome by using proxy services or VPN connections, which also decreases the performance. The bamboo firewall however can be crossed quite easily. The Vietnamese regime could establish such a censorship as well, but apparently they are more interested in monitoring the users. And the users who are considered to be harmful for the ideology are being tracked down arrested. Since August 2011 18 bloggers have been arrested in Vietnam, because they had spoken out against the regime.

Similar to China’s Renren (人人网) and Tencent QQ the Vietnamese Government also established its own social network in 2010 – _Mạng Việt Nam _(Network Vietnam). When users want to sign up they have to enter their passport ID. The purpose of this network is to have a state-owned competitive website against foreign services like facebook. In October 2011 the service had 3.1 Million users, where most of them are younger than 25 years. Curiously the service is mostly accessed from schools, indicating that the youngsters can not access facebook there and use this site as an alternative. But at home they still prefer the American social network.

This kind of censorship seems to be very wicked. On the one hand officially and by law Vietnam’s media is controlled by the state, on the other hand the citizens speak their own mind and overcome regulations. The citizens lose their trust in their government, because they know, that the state-owned media is censored and tells lies. Looking to the recent developments in North Africa and the Middle East the communist party gets more and more concerned. In April the Vietnamese government drafted a new bill which requires facebook and Google to censor their content and furthermore to require users to use their real name online. Later in June the US government negotiated with Vietnam to abolish this bill again. The main reasons were that it would threaten the freedom of speech and more importantly that it would decrease of foreign investments. Online media is the best growing marketing sector there. If important giants were regulated, less people would use them and the profits would drastically decrease.

It is hard to depict further development in Vietnam. It is unlikely that the government will abolish all regulations on the media, because then the communist party could lose their power rather quickly. But looking at recent happenings they also will not regulate further. More people in Vietnam will have access to the internet for sure. The cities are already well-connected and the bigger towns in the rural areas will eventually follow to a certain degree. Most likely the regime will maintain the status quo and occasionally ban one or two services and arrest critical thinkers. And by doing that losing more and more their citizens’ trust.


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