It is either the kind of society that designers of social networking websites like Facebook dream of, or the kind of society where nobody needs such websites at all.
For the first 10 months of this year, it looked like the former was the case. Facebook, which had struggled to find a toehold in Vietnam, took off in 2009, and now claims 3 million members. The service received a boost in July, when Yahoo shut down the Vietnamese branch of its social networking site Yahoo360.
Then, in early November, Facebook users began having trouble accessing the site. The government had ordered it blocked, employees at internet service providers said.
Government officials at first refused to confirm. But on December 1, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga said the government was blocking some websites “which were being used to provide information damaging to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.”
Facebook? Where people trade their favorite articles from The Onion, take quizzes comparing knowledge of ’80s hair bands, and follow the latest photos snapped by an orangutan in the Berlin Zoo? That Facebook?
Vietnamese Facebook users, who had invested time and effort in their online identities, reacted with dismay. Some suggested that the real reason behind the block was to force users to migrate to a Vietnamese-based social networking site, YuMe.vn. With 2 million users, it is Facebook’s chief competitor.
But a few Vietnamese, in the country and outside, had begun using Facebook for political purposes. After young dissident Nguyen Tien Trung was charged with political crimes in June, his friends established a Facebook group, Release Nguyen Tien Trung, that attracted hundreds of followers.
Other Facebook groups support the monks and nuns of Bat Nha monastery, who were forced out of their pagoda by police in a dispute with the national government-approved Buddhist sangha.
Others support a lawyer, Le Cong Dinh, who was arrested for pro-democracy activities in June, and to protest controversial Chinese-run bauxite mines in the country’s Central Highlands.
The exiled organization Viet Tan, which advocates multiparty democracy, maintains a Facebook page, too.
Vietnam receives billions of dollars per year in official development aid from democratic countries, and the website ban was emblematic of the restrictions on freedom of expression such donors have long objected to. When donors gathered for their annual Consultative Group meeting in early December in Hanoi, Facebook was on the agenda.
“This is not about teenagers chatting online,” US Ambassador to Hanoi Michael Michalak said. “It is a question of people’s rights to communicate with one another, share ideas and to do business.”
The US Congress passed a resolution in October calling on Vietnam to end internet restrictions. In late November, the European Parliament did the same.
Facebook has become another node in Vietnam’s increasingly complicated relationship with the internet, and the rest of the world.
Ever since it began its drive toward an export-oriented market economy in the late 1980s, Vietnam has struggled to balance its need to connect with the world against its desire to control the information inside its borders.
That struggle has become more difficult with near-universal internet use. In March, the government issued new regulations barring bloggers from commenting on politics.
Over the course of the year, at least six bloggers were detained, arrested, or sentenced to prison, and a seventh was fired from his job as a journalist.
Vietnam models its efforts to censor internet content on those of China, but it lacks the resources that allow China to employ 50,000 tech-savvy workers to monitor the online world.
The government has a history of spotty, slapdash attempts to block websites with potentially objectionable content.
Websites like those of the Voice of America and Human Rights Watch are often blocked by some internet providers, but accessible on others.
The clumsy techniques the government used to block Facebook are easy to circumvent. By late November, Vietnamese Facebook members were using simple workarounds to access the site.
“I only had trouble in the first few days after the site was blocked, but then I set something up,” said Dang Huong Tra, 23.
Former user Nguyen Van Tung, 28, said he understood why the government had blocked the site. “I think if people use those websites to talk about politics, and what they say negatively influences the state, the government should block them.”
At the Consultative Group meeting, Western donors tried to insist to Vietnam that without the free flow of information, Vietnam’s competitiveness would suffer.
But Minister of Planning and Investment Vo Hong Phuc said the country had already done enough to improve the flow of information, since the number of internet users continues to rise.
The donors who had objected to the country’s restrictions on internet use and its jailing of bloggers then announced their intention to increase pledges of official development assistance next year, from 5 billion to 8 billion dollars.