http://www.siliconvalley.com/docs/news/svtop/firew081301.htm BY MARK MCDONALD Mercury News Vietnam Bureau Aug. 12, 2001 HANOI -- When the entire e-mail system suddenly went dark throughout Vietnam last month, the government-owned agency that administers the Internet told its subscribers not to panic: The disruption was caused by routine maintenance on the country's firewall. Vietnam and other Asian governments have installed nationwide firewalls, or electronic filters, that keep Internet users from connecting to Web sites that the regimes consider politically, religiously or sexually offensive. But one of the principal custodians and censors of the Vietnamese firewall now acknowledges his wall is overmatched and doomed. ``Control through the firewall is no longer effective,'' said Do Quy Doan, chairman of the Vietnam Website Project at the Ministry of Culture and Information. ``If anyone who has a wish to get over the wall, they will. It is just a technical measure. If we put all our future hopes on the firewall, we will fail.'' This startling admission from a senior technocrat doesn't mean it's curtains for Hanoi's Internet Iron Curtain. The ruling Communist Party here still takes many of its political and ideological lessons from China, and Beijing has recently reinforced its already draconian restrictions on Internet use. China uses its firewall to block all manner of sites, including Western media outlets, human rights organizations and the Falun Gong spiritual movement. Other countries in Southeast Asia also are worried about the growing political reach and grasp of the Internet, particularly when it's used by opposition parties and activists. Singapore, with a general election coming up, has announced it will impose new restrictions on political Web sites and chat forums. And Malaysia, which advertises itself as the most tech-friendly nation in Southeast Asia, is said to be drafting tough new revisions to its existing ``cyber laws.'' In Vietnam, the firewall already blocks well over 3,000 Web sites -- and those are just the pornographic ones. Countless political and religious sites also get firewalled, in addition to proxy servers and so-called back-door sites that usually can be used to leap tall firewalls in a single bound. Doan declined to give statistics on the number of those sites deemed to be off-limits, although it's believed there are more than a thousand of them on Hanoi's blacklist. ``Of course we have those bad political sites, but those people can also get you their information through e-mail, fax, radio,'' Doan said. ``Nobody can control all that.'' One of the sites that escapes Hanoi's firewall is Viet Mercury, the Mercury News' Vietnamese-language weekly. (The regime's postal inspectors and the censors in the Ministry of Culture and Information confiscate, however, all newsprint copies of Viet Mercury mailed from San Jose.) The government clearly recognizes that its foreboding firewall drives off potential foreign investors while hamstringing domestic entrepreneurs. Indeed, firewall-free office space is dangled as an inducement for businesses to relocate to Quang Trung Software City, a 92-acre corporate park in Ho Chi Minh City. Quang Trung is the only place in the country -- other than the defense and public security ministries -- that's legally beyond the firewall. Nguyen Anh Dung, 37, managing director of SSL Vietnam, said his company would simply not exist if not for the firewall exemption inside the Quang Trung park. SSL Vietnam is developing a handheld computer called MineTerapin that they hope to launch next month. ``When we had an office in the city, we had to go through the firewall and that made the Internet so slow,'' Dung said. ``If we were still in our old place, we couldn't do this project. It would be impossible.'' There are countless anti-Hanoi political sites operating on the Web, of course, most of them run by refugees and emigres living outside Vietnam. These sites are routinely blocked from users inside Vietnam. ``Of course they block us, but it's not because of our content,'' said Pham Ngoc Lan, the San Jose-based Web master for Thong Luan, the online newsletter of the Rally for Pluralism and Democracy, a Vietnamese emigre group. ``We're moderates who are simply talking politics, and that's enough for them to block us. The culture police read us.'' Lan said friends in Ho Chi Minh City and Dalat occasionally can access his site when temporary holes open in the firewall. ``So it appears the system isn't reliable,'' he said. Government censors in Hanoi also recently began to discover a disturbing new phenomenon -- politically objectionable sites originating inside Vietnam. ``Yes, we're finding these sites now,'' Doan said with no further comment. To deal with the handful of domestic dissidents who try to operate over the Net, Hanoi will likely continue its highly effective strategy of raiding homes, disconnecting telephone lines and confiscating computers. The pluckier dissidents have resorted to using Internet cafes -- which seem to be growing exponentially in the major cities -- to send out their anti-government broadsides. One activist who has had two computers and a fax machine taken from him by the security police said he now wears a hat and a disguise when going to Internet cafes. He uses different cafes from day to day and repeatedly changes taxis en route. Vietnam first opened up to the Internet 3 1/2 years ago. There are five Internet service providers, all of them state companies that lease access to the country's sole gateway from a state-owned agency, the Vietnam Data Communications Co. Even with a population of 77 million, Vietnam has just 135,000 Internet subscribers, due largely to some of the world's highest sign-up costs and user fees. Even with piles of complaints from businesses and consumers, even in the face of a losing technological battle, the Vietnamese authorities show no signs of tearing down their firewall. Doan said Hanoi will launch a ``propaganda campaign'' to educate and warn its citizens about the accessing of inappropriate sites. Also, new laws and decrees will make it illegal to connect to naughty sites, with large fines being the principal deterrent. In the meantime, the task of tracking down new, offending Web sites falls mainly to the service providers. Every ISP has its own censorship team to prowl the Internet, ever on the alert for sex, violence and political danger. Poking anonymously through customers' accounts is part of the search, particularly the accounts of foreign subscribers. Even the in-boxes of foreign diplomats are not off limits. One Western diplomat fluent in Vietnamese recalled the day a couple of repairmen arrived at his embassy to fix a problem with the e-mail delivery system. While the men were working at the computers, the diplomat overheard one repairman tell the other that the problem had been caused by one of the government's ham-handed Internet snoopers. - ISN is currently hosted by Attrition.org To unsubscribe email majordomoat_private with 'unsubscribe isn' in the BODY of the mail.
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