Mobile’s rise in Vietnam fuels push for Internet freedom
HANOI — Sales of smartphones and tablets are booming in Vietnam at a time when a movement to protect Internet freedom in the repressive Communist state is showing signs of life.
Known as the site of the world’s first televised war, Vietnam is today one of the world’s hot spots for the growth of the mobile Web.
Sales of Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android-based phones and tablets more than tripled last year, according to San Francisco-based analytics firm Flurry. That is the fastest rate of growth in the world after Colombia.
Around Hanoi, street-side cafes are often packed with customers poking at phones and tablets as they sip on the country’s potent drip coffee. At the same time, Vietnam is also one of the world’s most dangerous places to use the Internet. Reporters Without Borders says up to 35 bloggers and other Web users are currently imprisoned on charges of spreading anti-government propaganda, with several serving lengthy sentences of up to 13 years for posting blogs and other articles.
In their latest move, Vietnam’s leaders say they are taking steps to manage a surge in the use of Internet-based messaging services such as Viber, WhatsApp and Line.
Some bloggers here are trying to push back by campaigning against the country’s candidacy for the United Nations’ Human Rights Council later this year. Specifically, they are against Article 258 of Vietnam’s penal code, which they say criminalises the “spreading (of) propaganda against the state” or “agitating against democracy”. Several other Internet restrictions are also coming into force, including a ban on sharing news articles or political commentary on blogs that took effect on Sept 1.
“We’re not breaking any laws. We just want to have a debate about the Internet, nothing more,” says one of the bloggers in the network, 25-year-old Trinh Anh Tuan. “But Article 258 prevents us from doing that.”
The rapid spread of the Internet, especially through phones and tablets, is causing distress among the leadership of several Asian countries.
China has long invested heavily in filtering technology known overseas as “the Great Firewall of China”, and is now stepping up efforts to stop people from spreading political gossip. Thailand uses its Computer Crimes Act to prosecute people criticising or posting unflattering material about its revered and politically-influential monarchy.
Vietnam, though, appears especially nervous. The government says its Web restrictions are designed to protect intellectual property and limit the spread of what it describes as damaging content.