[ISN] Vietnam heavily filters content, but firewalls are leaking

From: InfoSec News (isnat_private)
Date: Tue Aug 14 2001 - 03:17:30 PDT

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    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
    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
    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
    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.
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