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Vietnam’s Digital Divide

Have you ever tried to log on the web in Vietnam? If you do, make sure you have a lot of time to spare.

March 14, 2000

Have you ever tried to log on the web in Vietnam? If you do, make sure you have a lot of time to spare.

Almost from the start, it seemed obvious that no government — even the most repressive ones — would ever be able to monitor and control such a constantly changing source of news and information.

It is ironic, then, that the ever-improving technology that was supposed to allow the Internet to stay one step ahead of government interference is, in fact, the very thing that is helping to prevent some people from viewing the web altogether.

When I had dinner recently with an American friend who now works for an engineering company in booming Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, I was curious to know how he kept up with news and events going on back in the United States.

The Vietnamese newspapers — as well as the locally published French and English newspapers — are, he said, carefully edited to stay within bounds of government standards. Occasionally, he is able to find a copy of the USA Today — three or more days after its publication date.

Since his company's new office would have state-of-the-art computers and ready access to phone lines, I wondered if he read the online editions of the Washington Post or the New York Times?

When he shook his head, I immediately guessed that the government had blocked these sites — these proponents of Western democracy and capitalism — from being accessed. Clearly, a socialist government like Vietnam's would go to any length to keep their populace from falling under the influence of the Wall Street Journal.

Not at all, my friend said. The censor, in this case, was the sheer complexity of these newspapers' web sites. To access the web in Vietnam, a user must connect with the state-run telecom, and the fastest connection possible is 14,400 bits per second.

With new technologies like Java and Flash incorporated into these web sites, it takes forever (in Internet time, anyway) just to load a single page over such a slow connection. To go to another page, you have to wait again while that page loads. For all practical purposes, the sites might as well be blocked.

So, until things improve, my friend will continue to get his news about the Western world the old-fashioned way … from CNN!

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