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Facebook in Vietnam: Why the block doesn't work

Vietnam's answer to China's Great Firewall is more of a smoldering bamboo fence.

Vietnamese employee
A Vietnamese employee tells a customer about the new high-speed internet service at the post office in Hanoi, July 1, 2003. (Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP/Getty Images)

Update: Facebook is now advertising for a range of staff for its Vietnam branch, making it quite clear that the Vietnamese government’s blocking of their site will not hold them back in their bid for growth. The company is looking for a Policy and Growth Manager, whose responsibilities include "ensuring the site's accessibility" and having "experience in government relations work."

HANOI, Vietnam — Upon first glance, the Nokia billboards for the new C3 phone were not remarkable in any way.

Vietnam, like many countries in the region, is mobile phone-crazy, and ads for different companies pepper major cities.

But what was remarkable about this particular ad campaign was that it promoted the phones' access to Facebook chat — which, along with the rest of Facebook, is blocked in Vietnam.

How can a company get away with such a brazen breach of the block?

For starters experts say it isn’t much of a block. Vietnam’s answer to China’s Great Firewall is more of a smoldering bamboo fence — an inconvenience more than an outright prohibition.

Like China, Vietnam has been struggling to take advantage of the openness offered by the internet while maintaining its tight hold on the flow of information. Vietnam’s block is one of many measures undertaken recently to curb online activism and other internet activities deemed "harmful" by authorities.

Vietnam first blocked Facebook toward the end of 2009, as part of a haphazard block that the government has never directly acknowledged. A supposed draft regulation outlining eight blocked sites, including Facebook, made the rounds on the internet. Soon after, various internet service providers (ISPs) started blocking the social networking site, sometimes for days.

But a couple weeks later, everyone was fiddling with their domain name system (DNS) settings to get around the firewall or using Facebook Lite, a pared-down version that was still accessible.

Marketing consultant Nguyen Thanh Hai said, via Facebook chat, “it's not a strong block, you just change the DNS.”

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.

One of the many Nokia C3 ads around Hanoi.
(Matthew Bennett/GlobalPost)

Overseas businesses in Vietnam, apart from Nokia, continue to advertise on Facebook, though some say off the record that they worry about the legality of doing so. Some, such as skin care line Clean and Clear, use Zing, a locally produced social networking site popular with a younger demographic than Facebook. Nokia could not be reached for comment.

Unlike a widely publicized 2008 government regulation that told bloggers in Vietnam what they could and could not write about, the Facebook block was barely mentioned by government officials.

Local news site Vietnam Net Bridge reported in its lead story, weeks after the block began: “The Foreign Ministry has confirmed that in response to public concern, official agencies are evaluating the contents of certain social websites.”

Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga said, “a number of social websites have been misused to convey information with contents (sic) that oppose the Democratic Socialist Republic of Vietnam … threatening information security.”

Without saying much Nga confirmed that the government blocked Facebook for the reasons analysts suspected: a group of activists started a page opposing the country’s multi-billion dollar bauxite mine in the Central Highlands.