Blogger Nguyen Hue Chi is locked in an electronic game of cat and mouse with a mystery cyberattacker — widely believed to be the government.
Chi and his colleagues have set up a series of Web sites and blogs questioning government policy in the past year, only to see them attacked and blocked. Observers blame the communist state, which they say has adopted a more aggressive stance toward politically sensitive Internet sites.
“It seems that the government is definitely starting to follow the China model,” said a foreign diplomat who asked for anonymity. “The simple fact is, where they used to just try to block access, now they try to take down the Web sites.”
According to the diplomat’s count, about 24 Web sites have been disrupted this year.
Bauxite Vietnam, which Chi administers, was one of them.
The Web site last year initiated a petition against government plans for bauxite mining in the country’s Central Highlands, helping to fuel a rare public outcry from a broad spectrum of society.
The project, now under way, is controversial partly because at least one Chinese company has been granted a major contract.
“It’s clear that they have followed the Chinese model of controlling the Internet,” said Chi, who has also criticized the government over a sea dispute with China.
Beijing operates a vast system of Web censorship, sometimes referred to as the “Great Firewall of China.” Chi said two blogs and a Web site established in April last year were all blocked by year’s end, “despite great resistance,” and three new sites became overloaded from “hundreds of thousands” of attacks.
Bauxite Vietnam is still accessible, however, through two blogs. And Chi vowed to defend his Web sites “until the end.”
In March, US-based Internet giant Google said hackers had specifically “tried to squelch opposition to bauxite mining efforts in Vietnam.” Those responsible might have had “some allegiance” to the Vietnamese government, California-based Internet security firm McAfee said.
The incidents recalled cyberattacks in China that Google in January said had been a bid to hack into the e-mail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.
Google stopped censoring its search engine results in China, as is required by the government for it to operate.
Google also issued a warning on Vietnam last month, saying it was troubled by new regulations that may allow the government to block access to Web sites and track the activities of Internet users.
But Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded that soaring rates of Internet use have brought “challenges” such as violent content and pornography, particularly at public Internet businesses.
“This decision is aimed at guaranteeing safety and healthy usage for Internet users at public Internet access points in Hanoi,” ministry spokeswoman Nguyen Phuong Nga said.
Nga said concerns over free expression were groundless.
Vietnam’s Internet growth is among the world’s fastest, and users number almost 24 million, or about 28 percent of the population, Nga said.
Observers said Vietnam stepped up its campaign when it allegedly began blocking Facebook, the world’s most popular social networking site, in November. Users are still unable to log in through the site’s homepage, but many have found other ways to access the site.
Access to the BBC’s Vietnamese-language Web site has also been hit.
These restrictions, and on news media, led Western donors in December to say Vietnam’s actions threatened its rapid economic progress. A second diplomat, who also asked for anonymity, said that despite its efforts, the government would face difficulties controlling the Internet.
“You can close down Facebook and you can close down YouTube, but there will always be ways for people who really want to, to get around it,” the diplomat said.
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