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Fearing Facebook, Vietnam Launches Its Own Social-Networking Site

Very interesting article in "The Wall Street Journal" by James Hookway about Vietnam's efforts to set up its own answer to Facebook:

It's called, and state-owned Vietnam Multimedia Corp. launched a trial version on revolutionary hero Ho Chi Minh's birthday, May 19. A full version is due to go up at the end of the year. Many of its features will be familiar to anybody versed in tagging, poking and defriending: People can post photos, link to friends and ping messages back and forth online.

The catch is that users have to submit their full names and government-issued identity numbers before they can access the site. Security services monitor websites in Vietnam, whose authoritarian, one-party dictatorship treats dissidents ruthlessly.

The story highlights a number of recent trends, in particular how authoritarian governments are seeking to control the message by launching their own "sovereign internet" products rather than just always banning Internet/site access outright. As the "WSJ" points out:

The site marks a shift in tactics for Hanoi's Politburo members, who have more typically shut down parts of the Web that rubbed them the wrong way. Over the past year, authorities have jailed dissident bloggers and tried blocking Facebook Inc.'s flagship site to stop subversive thoughts from spreading online.

And you've got to hand it to the government for trying to get the kids involved:

The team has added online English tests and several state-approved videogames, including a violent multiplayer contest featuring a band of militants bent on stopping the spread of global capitalism. The stream of news on the home page recently included an item on local beauty queens, news of a South Carolina fisherman who caught a fish that had human-like teeth, and word that British intelligence services once experimented with semen as an invisible ink.

Hard to say how successful it will be -- I would guess, not very. For one, such efforts by any governments trying to appeal to the kids always have that cringe-worthy watching-your-dad-dance-at-a-disco feel to them. Just check out any NATO or EU outreach efforts to see what I mean.

And for two, despite the government's official ban on Facebook in Vietnam, it's still widely accessible. Writing in "Global Post," Helen Clark has some background on why the ban doesn't work:

Unlike China, which blocks websites at an ISP level, Vietnam does so at the DNS level. What this means, as one IT expert explained, is that the government simply tells service providers to redirect their servers away from sites as opposed to actually blocking their access. The upshot is that it's easier to circumnavigate Vietnam's firewall than it is China's, where an estimated 30,000 censors search for illicit content on the internet.

“This is trivially easy to circumvent,” said the IT expert, who wished to remain anonymous. “All you need do is change your DNS provider to one of the publicly available ones. Google DNS is a great example.”

The ease of the workaround and no official mention of sanctions mean Facebook users, which number over a million in Vietnam, can plead innocence. Users chat online, tag photos and play Farm Ville.

Also, as "The Wall Street Journal" article points out, there is a burgeoning underground trade in cracking phones, so that users can use any network or application they want. Perhaps another example of how societies with heavy Internet controls might develop two parallel tracks: non-cracked Vs. cracked. The former: closed, state sanctioned, dull. The latter where people rely on fiddling with their domain name system (DNS) settings or circumvention tools like proxies or cracked phones.

Another interesting detail. In the "WSJ" piece, will also go after "the country's hordes of videogame enthusiasts by offering cheap, easy access to some of their favorite games.

I've always been interested in this idea of cyber-hedonism, which Evgeny Morozov has spoken about, where the Internet could become a new opium for the masses, as potentially politically active types won't bother challenging their nasty regimes as they're too busy playing Halo 3 and watching porn. The Faustian pact of the 21st century: You stay out of politics and you can bit-torrent all you like. (You can't go anywhere in south-east Asia without bumping into an Internet cafe filled with teenagers playing video games.)

For the Vietnamese government it makes sense (at least in theory) to have young people use, even if they just end up playing noneducational video games or flirting with their friends. As long as it keeps them away from all those pesky Facebook groups.