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On-Line With the People in Line.. Internet Control in Vietnam

On-Line With the People in Line.. Internet Control in Vietnam

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On-line with the people in line: Internet developmentand flexible control of the net in Vietnam
Bjo¨rn Surborg
Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, 1984 West Mall, Vancouver, BC, Canada V6T 1Z2
Received 27 November 2006; received in revised form 12 July 2007
Information and communication technologies in general and the internet in particular are often praised as a means for enhancingdemocracy and providing new spaces for the development of an egalitarian civil society, in which all members of society can participateequally. However, there are various possibilities to monitor, manipulate and control cyberspace, of which the internet is an essential part.This paper examines the efforts of the Vietnamese government and the Vietnamese Communist Party to control cyberspace as well as thephysical spaces through which the virtual world is accessed. There are attempts to control the internet in a similar fashion as the tradi-tional print and broadcast media. Any such control is neither absolute nor without effect. Instead control is exercised in a highly flexiblemanner, allowing for some officially unwanted or illegal activity to occur. At the same time authorities can apply internet regulations, if itserves their political objectives as for example strengthening the Party’s official monopoly on political power. The paper traces the devel-opment of the internet as well as the regulatory environment surrounding it and analyses the inconsistent enforcement of regulations. Theanalysis is framed in the theoretical works of Michel Foucault and Ju¨rgen Habermas.
2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Vietnam; Internet; Cyberspace; Political economy Vietnam; Vietnamese Communist Party; ICTs
1. Introduction
Since the introduction of the
doi mo
(renovation)reforms in Vietnam there have been profound changes inthe lives of the Vietnamese people, but also a considerablelevel of continuity in the socio-economic and cultural life of the country. There is some debate about how dramatic thedecisions to officially introduce
doi moi 
at the sixth PartyCongress of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) in1986 were. While some observers consider the congress alandmark event at which the Party introduced reforms thatwere the starting point for the transformation from a cen-trally planned economy to a market system, others view theevent as an official endorsement of changes that had takenplace before. There were profound changes in the economicstructure of the country, many of which took effect rapidly,but political reforms were relatively few. The VCP main-tains its claim on the monopoly on political power andexercises considerable influence and control over the insti-tutions of the state and mass organisations. How muchcontrol the party has exactly, remains equally subject todebate as is the question of the Party’s role in initiatingreform.The market reforms and the associated image of mod-ernisation have been important for the Party to portray apicture of progress regardless of growing inequalities andmany sacrifices by individuals. One part of this Vietnamesemodernisation project has been the internet and the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs).There has been some considerable growth of the internetin Vietnam since the country officially connected to theinternational network in 1997, but in this paper I arguethat the technology is a mechanism that is part of a largertransformation enabling the Party to remain in powerwhile advancing economic market reforms without
0016-7185/$ - see front matter
2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2007.07.008
E-mail address:
 Available online at www.sciencedirect.com
Geoforum 39 (2008) 344–357
substantial political change. Contrary to the idea that theinternet will automatically enhance democracy and plural-ism, because of greater information flows, the VCP hasmanaged to implement measures of flexible control overthe internet that allow the internet to operate relativelyunrestricted for the most part, but enable powerful ele-ments in the state bureaucracy to restrict internet uses, if they consider their hegemony under threat.Cyberspace has often been considered a tool for enhanc-ing democratic participation in society due to greater infor-mation flows and access to communication. It has alsobeen considered a space through which the territorialboundaries of physical spaces could be rendered obsolete,because of the possibility of instantaneous communicationamongst many actors over large distances and across bor-ders. However, for example the internet, as an essentialpart of cyberspace, requires a substantial infrastructurethat is part of physical space and is always connected orbound to specific places and territories. The volume of communication on the internet makes it impossible forthe Vietnamese state to control all aspects of the net, butthere are measures
in place
that allow control over unde-sired forms of communication within the territory of thenation state. Yet, no form of control is permanent or uni-versal, but applied flexibly when political policing seemsnecessary to protect the hegemony and power of the gov-erning Communist Party.Ju¨rgen Habermas’s
theory of communicative action
andhis concept of an ethical discourse are applied in this paperas a guide to examining the internet as a mechanism of afree, fair and unrestricted public debate that will enhancepolitical participation and equal access to institutions insociety. Michel Foucault’s analysis of 
serves as a theoretical tool of analysis to examine the powerrelations that shape the public debate and the governanceof the internet in Vietnam. The work of the two thinkersis used to contrast what could be achieved through theinternet and what is happening in the specific instance of Vietnam. While this paper is a case study of Vietnam, thelarger concepts may apply to various political contexts,including liberal western democracies.Following a review of the theories, the paper gives abrief historical overview of Vietnam and the developmentof the internet specifically. It then analyses policies regard-ing internet infrastructure, content, diffusion and control.This analysis is based on the review of policy documents,including government decrees, as well as news storiesretrieved through a comprehensive search of English lan-guage publications in Vietnam using the database Factiva.
Some publications were included in the database for only ashort period of time. Articles from the
Vietnam Courier
, forexample, only appeared, if published during a two monthperiod in the spring of 1997 and only articles from the
Viet-nam Economic Times
that were published between April1997 and January 1999 were included. The three publica-tions that yielded the largest number of downloaded newsstories are therefore, the
Vietnam Investment Review
Viet-nam News Agency Bulletin
Vietnam News Brief Service
.All sources are published in Vietnam, which means they areunder the influence of the Vietnamese state and are likelyundergoing some form of censorship or at least editorialcontrol. Given their publication in English they are proba-bly targeted towards a non-Vietnamese audience and pub-lished, at least partly and certainly in the case of the
Vietnam Investment Review
, with the intention of attractingforeign investment as well as portraying Vietnam positivelyin political terms. However, the
Vietnam News Brief Service
provides a daily summary of domestic issues covered in theVietnamese press, focusing on banking, financing, invest-ment and trade. Although the selection of stories fromthe Vietnamese press is likely made with specific but notstated intentions, this source covered some viewpointsnot given in the other publications. The
Vietnam NewsAgency Bulletin
covers the ongoing newsreleases by thecountry’s state-owned official news agency.
2. Social theory
The theoretical treatments of discourse analysis andpower by both Michel Foucault and Ju¨rgen Habermashave been instrumental for many aspects of social scienceresearch and have both been employed in research onInformation Systems, ICTs and Cyberspace (see e.g.Min-gers and Willcocks, 2004; Dodge and Kitchin, 2005). Thereis, however, a tension between the normative and the real,i.e. between what should be and what is, in the combinedwork of the two thinkers (Flyvbjerg, 1998).Habermas’s work on
suggests that members in a society should engagein a rational and ethical discourse of all aspects of publiclife to arrive at the best possible understanding and findthe best possible decisions in response to collective chal-lenges. Habermas uses the word ‘discourse’, which in thiscontext needs to be interpreted as an open ended debate(cf.Klein and Huynh, 2004, p. 187). The rules for thisdiscourse have to be provided by a higher authority forwhich Habermas suggests the writing of constitutions.With respect to process Habermas favours a top-downapproach, i.e. a normative provision of the rules for thisrational and ethical discourse in the form of a constitutionand laws. With respect to content, on the contrary, he sup-ports bottom-up approaches, in which truth is not a given,but emerges out of contributions by the participants in spe-cific situations (Flyvbjerg, 1998, p. 214). Constitutions,however, are without value for the formation of such a dis-course, if citizens have not accustomed themselves to the
Dow Jones Reuters Business Interactive LLC.
I spent 2 years in Vietnam from 2002 to 2004. During this time I livedwithin Vietnamese society and worked with Vietnamese institutions, whichdoes not directly contribute to specific details of this paper, but isinvaluable in putting information into perspective.
B. Surborg / Geoforum 39 (2008) 344–357 
values in the constitution and comprehend the constitutionas an attainment (Habermas, 1994a, p. 514). Habermasemphasises the importance of institution building and con-siders law the adequate instrument to authorise power,whereas this must occur together with the sanctioning of law by power, a point that contrasts with Foucault’s con-ceptualisation of power (Flyvbjerg, 1998, p. 214).For Foucault power is inescapable and manifestedthrough an omnipresent moral discourse and disciplinarymechanisms of society, such as institutionalised rules of behaviour.Foucault (1990)has traced the developmentof what he calls bio-politics throughout the period of industrialisation of Victorian England, where sexualitywas suppressed and confined to the spaces of the home,i.e. the private realm, which highlights the modern tensionbetween private and public that emerges at the same time.Dodge and Kitchin (2001, pp. 18–20)highlight the tensionbetween public and private domains in cyberspace. Whilemuch of the internet is a public sphere, it is not an unreg-ulated virtual public space. Many aspects of the internetare subject to regulation, including the ‘‘point of entry’’,which has to be via an Internet Service Provider (ISP).The works of Foucault and Habermas emphasise the sepa-ration of public and private as an important characteristicof modernisation, and concepts of places for living, i.e.home, and places for other activities have been fundamen-tal in the organisational structure of western society for along time. Public spaces have been important in facilitatingdebate in civil society and have included truly publicspaces, such as plazas and parks, as well as semi-public are-nas, such as cafe´s and other businesses.Foucault points to an omnipresent disciplinary power inhis book
Discipline and Punish
(Foucault, 1995). Using theexample of the modern prison, he analyses the role of thepanopticon in disciplining the inmates in their bodilyactions. The architecture of prisons would allow the per-manent and complete observation (i.e. panopticon) of inmates. But even if observation was not permanent, thepossibility thereof would be sufficient for self-discipline.Other examples of such architecture include boardingschools or manufacturing workshops. AlthoughHabermas(1994b)agrees that Foucault’s analysis of the panopticon iscorrect in individual instances, he rejects it in its generality.The disciplining power of the panopticon applied in themodern penal system is not characteristic of modern soci-ety as a whole. The analysis is also oblivious to the devel-opment of law and the granting of constitutional rights(Habermas, 1994b).One of the conditions for successful communicativeaction and achieving mutual agreement based on an opendiscourse is that all participants are expressing their inten-tions openly and clearly in order not to mislead the otherparties (Habermas, 1984, p. 99). However, this pre-condi-tion limits the practical application of the theory, becauserarely will a discourse be completely open and without hid-den intentions. What appears to be communicative actionwith the noble goal of achieving consensus, may in factbe covert strategic action, if one party has already decidedthat it will not negotiate (Klein and Huynh, 2004, p. 187).Due to its impersonalised forms of interaction, cyberspacemay therefore be no better locus for overcoming this chal-lenge to the theory than any other space.In one of the earliest critical evaluations of the internetand cyberspace more generally Julian Stellabrass, notesthat uneven technological development, pricing structureand technical skills are restricting access to cyberspacefor a wider public (Stellabrass, 1995), thus cyberspacecould not be considered a truly public space. An open anar-chic culture was prevalent on the net in its early years of development, because participation was limited to certainindividuals with technical skills and resources and thusforming a virtual community of equals. However, for soci-ety at large cyberspace would be of little advantage for cre-ating Habermas’s utopian society in which agreementwould be achieved through a reasoned and radical dis-course. Bulletin Board Systems, for example, are oftendominated by a few active suppliers of information thatdominate themes and jargon, while the majority consistsof quiet receivers of information of this quasi broadcastingtechnology. Interactive possibilities are largely underuti-lised due to social manifestations in cyberspace (Stella-brass, 1995).In spite of these limitations, the internet provides poten-tially new forms of communication. Through the potentialof downloading (receiving) information from the internetand uploading (providing) information modernist struc-tures of communication are blurred. The roles of broad-caster and listener, producer and consumer oinformation can potentially be combined and thereforechange the structure of modern communication. Suchinteractive practices can be facilitated for instance throughchat rooms, Bulletin Boards or web-sites (Dodge andKitchin, 2001, p. 20). More recently blogs should beincluded in this list. However, these potential uses of cyber-space must always be viewed in the context of access toinfrastructure, cultural and language barriers and powerrelations within cyberspace.The above discussion highlights the tensions betweenpossibilities (the normative approach) and reality that ischaracteristic in the works of Foucault and Habermas.On one hand there is potential for change towards a moredemocratic and open society through the internet; but anyanalysis, on the other hand, cannot be conducted withoutconsideration of the current power relations, such as polit-ical control of the net.
3. Liberalisation in Vietnam
A common contemporary perception of Vietnam,including that of the United States State Department, isstill one of a Communist one-party state with all politicalpower in the hands of the Party (Koh, 2001b, p. 533). How-ever, in spite of official statements regarding the monopolyon political power by the VCP, decision making in Vietnam
B. Surborg / Geoforum 39 (2008) 344–357 

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