Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Government takes on Facebook in Vietnam

The Wall Street Journal has an interesting story today about the Vietnamese government's attempt to launch a sanitised alternative to Facebook, which has been blocked on and off here since the end of last year.

The site, called go.vn, failed to capture the imagination of Vietnam's tech-savvy youth with initial articles about Ho Chi Minh and other revolutionary leaders and is now being spiced up. The WSJ reports:

The team has added online English tests and several state-approved videogames, including a 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.

Mr. Hop, the information minister, predicted go.vn will sign up more than 40 million people— about half the country's 85 million people—by 2015.

But the apetite for Facebook and other uncensored global social networking sites seems unlikely to fade quickly, particularly given the ease with which the Vietnamese restrictions can be circumvented.

As Global Post puts it in an article on the ineffectiveness of Vietnam's Facebook block: "Vietnam’s answer to China’s Great Firewall is more of a smoldering bamboo fence — an inconvenience more than an outright prohibition." (For the record, Facebook is currently accesbile in my hotel room.)

At first sight, it appears hard to understand why the government would waste its time with such lacklustre censorship. Part of the problem is that the Vietnamese media police do not have the same resources or know-how as China's army of technologically-advanced censors.

I suspect that the government is also aware that it cannot completely control access to the internet without damaging prospects for economic growth.

The Facebook block will not stop even the mildly determined. But it sends out a clear message that the government is watching what you do online and that using state-sanctioned social media is a safer path to tread.

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