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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.

Vietnam has one of the higher rates of internet penetration regionally, at over 25 percent. Blogging has been common for many years and gaming is so popular that treatment centers have opened to treat those addicted to it. Even small suburban cafes offer high-speed WiFi, usually for free.

In the past few years, the government has cracked down on bloggers, arresting many and throwing some in jail. The government has been accused of cyber spying and hacking into sites it deems harmful.

China blocked Facebook in July 2008, and soon thereafter also blocked YouTube and Twitter. It didn't take long before Vietnam followed China's lead with internet filters.

“China’s sheer size and resources make it very different from Vietnam. I think Vietnam has the political will but lacks the resources. Vietnam has always been more moderate than China in a comparative sense," said professor Carlyle Thayer, a Vietnam expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy.

Criticism of Vietnam’s efforts has been strong. Human Rights Watch condemned the blocks, blogger arrests and the proposed spy software which is supposed to be installed in all public computers in Hanoi by 2011.

At an ASEAN summit in Hanoi in April, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed concern. “In Vietnam, access to popular social networking sites has suddenly disappeared,” she said and went on to condemn the blogger arrests and alleged hacking of activist and other sites.

British Ambassador Mark Kent has blogged in Vietnamese and English for more than two years at his embassy’s website. The embassy launched its Facebook page in Vietnam after the block took effect. It gains three new friends each day, according to the embassy.

"No-one in government has said [Facebook] was blocked. ... It doesn't appear to have had a lasting effect, as people have found ways” around it, he said.

"We’ve been quite clear that unwarranted internet restrictions are harmful to a developing society. The way this country got where it is through opening up to the rest of the world,” he added.

Overseas democracy group, Viet Tan, recently began a No Firewall campaign. “It is very encouraging that the majority of Facebook users know how to access it," said Viet Tan spokeswoman Angelina Do via email. "However, they are still a minority of internet users in Vietnam. ... The need for circumvention knowledge and digital security understanding is very necessary for Vietnam as a whole.”