Vietnamese authorities face a dilemma common to authoritarian systems. The desire for economic development that builds on the new technologies clashes with fear of political instability growing out of digital activism.
Internet in Vietnam
- Population: 91,500,000
- Number of Internet users: 31,000,000
- Internet penetration rate: 33.9%
- Imprisoned journalists: 2
- Imprisoned netizens: 31
Connected to the web since the 1990s, the country began building infrastructure and relevant institutions in the mid-2000s. The founding of a National Steering Committee for Information and Communication Technologies and the 2005 launching of a national plan to develop TICs have favoured Internet development.
Expansion of the network coincides with the blossoming of blogs and Internet cafés – as well as digital monitoring and control technologies.
The Communist Party of Vietnam has focused its ambitions on telecommunications, an industry which is proving dynamic. The population of Internet users is booming: one in three persons is connected. And in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, 95 per cent of people in the 15-22 age group have Internet access.
The youthfulness of Vietnam’s population and growing urbanization point to further explosive growth in Internet access.
Mediocre quality and speed
Despite these factors, the Vietnamese network has not achieved launch velocity. Its quality and speed lag behind those of other Asian countries. According to the 2012 Akamai report on the worldwide network, Vietnam’s 1.25 Mbps average connection speed in the last quarter of 2012 ranks it below Thailand and Malaysia and well below the international average of 2.3 Mbps.
Connection speed diminished since the beginning of last year. The reason is simple: the ruling party deliberately lowered the network’s speed, by way of its control of Internet Service Providers.
Service providers at Party orders
Most of the country’s 16 service providers are directly or indirectly controlled by the Party.The industry leader, Vietnam Posts and Telecommunications Group, which controls 74 per cent of the market, is state-owned. So is Viettel, an enterprise of the Vietnamese armed forces. FPT Telecom is a private firm, but is accountable to the Party and depends on the market leaders for bandwidth.
A distinction exists between service providers who enable individuals and companies to connect, and Internet Exchange Points (IXP), which allocate bandwidth to service providers.
Under Vietnamese law, service providers may be private firms, but IXPs are by definition state-owned. Under this system, the government may control access to content, acting through its own companies, or through IXPs.
Service providers are the major instruments of control and surveillance. Providers block access to sites that displease the authorities. The procedure involves use of DNS (Domain Name Server), which enables access shutdown to a given domain name. But while DNS blocking affects access to an entire site, it cannot be directed at a specific page.
Each service provider is allowed to block content individually, without having to do so jointly with the other firms. For example, VNPT censors Facebook, but the other providers allow access.
OpenNet Initiative, a research group, published a list in 2012 of sites blocked in Vietnam. These included newspapers and domestic and foreign blogs, and sites that provided content on political opposition and human rights.
Some bloggers have used circumvention software – proxies, VPN, Tor – to defeat blocking. But these tools are not always reliable. The government has the capability to block ports set aside for relaying encrypted data and making the attempted solutions unusable.
Bloggers monitored by the government frequently undergo Man In The Middle attacks. These are designed to intercept data meant to be sent to secure (https) sites. This technique can be used only by administrators of the Vietnamese network, for example Internet service providers. Frequently, passwords are hacked and connection speeds slowed down on days when dissidents are arrested or go on trial.
Subscription and personal data controls
Subscribers to landline service for telephone and Internet are required to submit a series of documents that contain personal data: name, date of birth, telephone number, job, employer and proof of address.
The sole proof of address officially recognized in Vietnam is the hộ khẩu, a police document designed for population control. Without the hộ khẩu, it is impossible to rent an apartment, obtain a formal job, receive a driver’s license or subscribe to an Internet service. Three countries in the world use such a document: China, North Korea and Vietnam.
Mobile communications monitoring
The major Internet service providers also provide fixed and mobile phone service. Mobile phone service revenues reached an estimated $500 million in 2012. Vietnam had 119 million mobile service subscriptions – for a country of 91 million. Three major mobile service firms, including Viettel, shared 90 per cent of this giant market. All are state-owned.
Freedom House reported in July 2012 that a survey showed that 91 per cent of respondents connected to the Internet on their mobile devices. But government ownership of the service providers means that security for mobile browsing is poor and surveillance easy
According to the report, the government monitors conversations and tracks the calls of citizens who are targeted as “activists” or “reactionaries.” Some of them have had their telephone or Internet service cut off.
Official legal weapons
Vietnam’s 1989 media law explicitly defines the role of the press: “The media operating within the Socialist Republic of Vietnam is the essential means of providing public information in relation to social life; is the mouth piece of Party organizations, State bodies and social organizations), and a forum for the people.”
The law creates boundaries on traditional and online media. Though freedom of the press, freedom of expression and the right to be informed are all guaranteed in Article 69 of the Vietnamese constitution of 1992, these freedoms are, in reality, discarded when they contradict the Party line.
In direct accord with the 1989 law, Decree 55/2001/ND-CP of August, 2001 sets out the basis for Party control of the Internet. Article 6 specifies that information posted on the Internet must meet media law standards. Article 8 declares that “the supervision of information on the Internet must be enforced by competent State agencies.” Article 11 prohibits use of the Internet to oppose the government.
The decree also provides in Article 13 that IXPs (see above) can only be owned by the state.
Another decree enacted in 2003, 92/2003/QD-BBCVT, prohibits sending or receiving anti-government material. The decree also requires site owners to register with the Vietnam Internet Network Information Center, an agency of the Ministry of Information and Communications. Since June 2006, Decree 56/06/ND-CP holds journalists and bloggers to Party discipline through a prohibition on “expressing reactionary ideology or culture” or “spreading illegal propaganda,” crimes punishable by 3 to 20 years in prison and a $2,000 fine.
Internet cafés, very popular in Vietnam, are strictly regulated. A decision by the Hanoi People’s Committee in 2010 requires café owners to install government-supplied monitoring software that enables tracing of Internet activity as well as site-blocking. Under the decree, users connecting from cafés must show their identity cards, and the cafés are required to store this information, so that it can be officially inspected.
According to our sources, café owners frequently ignore these requirements for economic reasons, because customers are known to quit patronizing an establishment that demands identification. Nevertheless, Internet cafés are required to keep all users’ browser logs.
In April 2012, Reporters Without Borders called on the government to abandon a planned decree on “Management, Provision, Use of Internet Services and Information Content Online.” With the announced aim of replacing a 2008 decree (itself an amended version of a 2001 decree), the proposed new law would :
- Prohibit all anonymous online expression of opinion, and ban use of false identities or identity-masking tools.
- Prohibit false names on social networks.
- Require site administrators to report illegal activities to the government.
- Require bloggers to identify themselves by their real names - ending a practice by which they often use fictitious names in order to evade surveillance.
- Force foreign online providers to locate their data centres in Vietnam, thereby authorizing Party access.
- Require foreign providers to supply personal information on their users (name and address) and to cooperate with government agencies.
Control at the heart of institutions
Decisions concerning Internet monitoring originate mainly with the Ministry of Information and Communications and the Ministry of Public Security.
Ministry of Information and Communications
The MIC controls the major online service providers and the Vietnam Internet Network Information Center. In addition, the ministry issues most decrees involving Internet use. The ministry works close with the National Steering Committee for Information and Communication Technologies, which is headed by the prime minister.
Ministry of Public Security
The ministry focuses on enforcing laws and sanctions that target publications deemed reactionary, by official standards, rather than on the technology of network monitoring.
However, the ministry runs the Công An Mạng digital police agency, which was founded initially to combat cyber-crime, such as credit card fraud and hacking. But this force enjoys complete authority to shut sites or blogs that displease the government, and to arrest the authors. Lt. Col. Đinh Hữu Tân, chief of the “Internal Security Bureau” in Hanoi has said the force’s job is to “monitor Internet content in all form, all publications, including press reports, blogs and commentaries.
Internet monitoring is openly acknowledged, but the size of the surveillance force and the details of the cyber-police’s methods are kept secret.
The Vietnamese web shows remarkable vitality, despite laws and institutions that impose Internet monitoring and censorship, as well as harsh repression against those exercising the right of free expression and the right to information.
Political and social blogs and dissident commentary are flourishing. Trying to contain them, the government has appealed to its own cyber-soldiers, who are dedicated to stamping out what are deemed anti-patriotic and reactionary opinions.
The cyber-army is not an official entity – though the authorities of Ho Chi Minh City have acknowledged deploying what they call “public opinion shapers.” Their identities are kept secret from the public, but they are believed to number more than 80,000 nationwide.
Following the Chinese model, this militia disseminates government propaganda and reports activists, bloggers and netizens to the government. An estimated 1,000 cyber-officers officially appointed by the government are assigned to infiltrate the favoured territory of information activists: social networks and blogs.
Major freedom of information violations
For the government, the blogosphere is the main target. Blogs represent an enormous new information and opinion sphere – one that arouses great interest by web users. For that reason, blogs are targeted for heavy sanctions.
Huynh Ngoc Chenh (Netizen of the year for 2013), sums up the situation: “The state controls all communications. Opinions that oppose the state are not made public. Freedom of expression is practically non-existent in Vietnam. So many people use blogs to make their opinions known. But the government shuts these blogs. And many bloggers are arrested. And they are harassed, along with their families.”
In September 2012, Decree 7169/VPCP-NC directly targeted the country’s most influential blogs: Danlambao, Quanlambao and Biendong. Their authors, who write under pseudonyms, face long prison terms if the Party discovers their real identities.
Anonymity is widespread in the Vietnamese blogosphere. But the Party is not letting that get in its way, using its monitoring tools to uncover the real names of targeted bloggers. If caught, they risk harsh punishment.
That was the fate of Le Nguyen Sang and Huynh Nguyen Dao in 2006. While both signed their work with false names (Nguyen Hai Son and Nguyen Hoang Long), they were identified by cyber-police and sentenced to four and two and a half years in prison, respectively.
Tran Huynh Duy Thuc was arrested in 2009, and Lu Van Bay in 2011, though both posted their work under pseudonyms. Thuc now is serving a 16-year sentence. Bay, who used four different false names, was sentenced to four years.
Blogger Panh Thanh Hai and writer Pham Chi Dung, a former member of the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee who contributed to “unauthorized” sites such as Phiatruoc and Quanlambao were also arrested despite their use of false names.
Information activists live under constant monitoring. Methods include physical surveillance and intimidation of those whose identities are known. Phishing and digital espionage is directed at anonymous bloggers.
One activist, who had served a prison sentence and asked to remain anonymous, told Reporters Without Borders said that following his arrest: “In prison they showed me the articles I had written, signed with a false name, the emails I had sent to colleagues and even my telephone conversations.”
This is not an isolated case. Cyber-police use all possible methods, including Man In The Middle password retrieval, hacking attacks, and mobile phone monitoring. The police aim not only to uncover bloggers’ real names, but to identify everyone in their networks.
The official justification in all of these cases is always “cooperation with reactionary organizations based abroad,” “attempt to overthrow the government,” or “anti-government propaganda”. Corruption and tax fraud allegations are also frequently aimed at journalists and bloggers. Dieu Cay, a well-known and popular blogger, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in on these charges in 2008. The repression campaign targets individual as well as collective blogs. In the former group are bloggers including Nguyen Van Dai, Pham Thanh Nghien, Le Cong Dinh, Dinh Dang Dinh, J.B Nguyen Huu Vinh, Nguoi Buon Gio, and Nguyen Quang Lap. Collective blog targets include BachDang, Quanlambao, Bauxite Viet Nam, Dong Chua Cuu The, and Nu Vuong Cong Ly.
The list is steadily growing longer. On 9 January 2013, 14 activists, including 8 bloggers and netizens were sentenced to terms ranging from 3 to 13 years in prison – a collective total of 113 years behind bars. They were charged under clauses 1 and 2 of Article 79 of the Penal Code with “participation in an attempt to overthrow the people’s administration” and “organization of an attempt to overthrow the people’s administration.”
Constant monitoring creates pressure for self-censorship by activists whose families come under official pressure. Yet despite everything, the Vietnamese web remains enormously active. For one thing, the Party does not have the capability to monitor the entire web. And authorities cannot new blogs from springing up. Some bloggers use anti-monitoring tools, such as proxies, in order to keep up their activities. And many are defiantly posting under their real names, or publicly denouncing the official campaign against them. In the words of an administrator of Danlambao: "Nobody can shut our mouth or stop our freedom of expression. This is our mission, we will continue at any cost”.
In order to protect their anonymity in a country where the network infrastructure does not allow interception of encrypted communications (meaning no Deep Packet Inspection), Vietnamese bloggers have every reason to use encryption. Consequently, VPN is a better option than proxies. The latter enable bypassing of access blockage, but – unlike VPN – do not encrypt.
Temporary or disposable email services are a good way to preserve anonymity. Use of anonymous and secure email services such as Riseup.net or hushmail, coupled with PGP encryption, can also be useful.
Telephone or VOIP conversations should be avoided. Vietnamese surveillance is also physical. One of the methods used to intercept these conversations is to use a long-range microphone in the vicinity of a suspected activist’s home.
Use of instant messaging services, such as Google chat, ICQ, IRC, or Yahoo!, coupled with encryption software such as OTR, can defeat this kind of surveillance. A great advantage of OTR is that no trace of the message history remains on a user’s device.
For more information, read our Online digital kit
-  Whitebook “Viet Nam Information and Communication Technolology” - 2011. p.5 (http://mic.gov.vn/Attach%20file/sachtrang/sachtrang2011.pdf)
-  http://www.itu.int, http://data.worldbank.org ;http://mic.gov.vn/
-  http://opennet.net/research/profiles/vietnam#footnoteref2_g3yqrfg
-  Ibid p.49
-  http://www.economist.com/blogs/banyan/2012/08/Internet-freedom-vietnam
-  http://english.vietnamnet.vn/en/science-technology/22586/Internet-speed-unimproved-owing-to-the-lack-of-content.html
-  http://english.mic.gov.vn/Statistics/staticstics_open/Trang/operators.aspx
-  http://www.business.gov.vn/assets/fbbc1d48c42d4f36a161a8a3d8749744.pdf art. 13.
-  Safety on the Line: Exposing the Myth of Mobile Communication Security, Freedom House, July 2012, p. 148,http://www.freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/Safety%20on%20the%20Line.pdf
-  http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/statistics/
-  http://mic.gov.vn/Attach%20file/sachtrang/sachtrang2011.pdf p.51
-  http://www.freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/Safety%20on%20the%20Line%20vFINAL.pdf p.151
-  http://www.cov.gov.vn/cbqen/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=606&Itemid=75; http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/pdfid/50fe5e5a2.pdf
-  http://www.fidh.org/IMG/pdf/bloggers_report_in_english.pdf p.9
-  http://english.vietnamnet.vn/en/science-technology/23242/new-Internet-draft-decree-favors-foreign-businesses.html
-  http://www.action.vn/news/hot-news/594-prime-minister-will-be-the-chairman-of-the-national-ict-committee
-  http://www.fidh.org/IMG/pdf/bloggers_report_in_english.pdf p.10
-  http://www.france24.com/en/20130118-vietnams-propaganda-agents-battle-bloggers-online
-  http://techpresident.com/news/wegov/23377/vietnams-government-hired-propaganda-bloggers?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+techpres+%28techPresident%29
-  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-20982985
-  http://finance.yahoo.com/news/under-fire-vietnamese-blogger-vows-dissent-093346513.html
-  http://en.rsf.org/vietnam-arrests-surveillance-and-18-07-2012,43061.html
-  http://finance.yahoo.com/news/under-fire-vietnamese-blogger-vows-dissent-093346513.html