Vietnam, which released a prominent jailed cyber-dissident this week, imposes tight legal and technical measures to control access to writings and people who challenge one-party rule, researchers and observers say.
The Communist government says it monitors Web sites and Internet cafes to block pornographic content. But a report published in early August by a western academic group, OpenNet Initiative, said its researchers easily gained access to sexually-explicit sites in Vietnamese.
The state filters a significant fraction -- in some cases, the great majority -- of sites with politically or religiously sensitive material that could undermine Vietnam's one-party system, said the group, a partnership of centres at the University of Toronto, Harvard, Cambridge and Oxford.
Ironically, when cyber-dissident Pham Hong Son was released on Wednesday, it was possible to download in the capital Hanoi, a Vietnamese-language Web cast interview he did by telephone with the British Broadcasting Corporation.
Son was originally sentenced to 13 years imprisonment, reduced to five on appeal, for posting essays on democracy on the Internet. He served more than four years in prison on a conviction of spying and now faces three years of effective house arrest.
Son was arrested in March 2002 after translating and posting an article What is Democracy? from a U.S. government Web site.
The Communist government itself uses the Internet to promote its socio-economic policies and growing international ties as it nears membership of the World Trade Organization and hosts the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum this year.
The Vietnam Communist Party and many government ministries have their own Web sites, some of them English language versions. Many of the state-run newspapers also publish on the Web.
In defense of criticism about restrictions on freedom of speech and the Internet, Vietnam officials point to the thousands of Cybercafes in the urban centres of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi where it costs about 50 U.S. cents or less an hour for a broadband connection. They are filled with young people, mostly playing video games.
Relatively few Vietnamese, about 16 percent of the country's 83 million population, have access to the Internet, according to government figures.
There are 13 Internet access services providers listed by the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, and for several years, the government has approved the use of Voice Over Internet Protocol as a cheaper alternative for international phone calls.
Vietnam's Internet infrastructure and market are dynamic and fast-changing, but it seems inescapable that the state's on-line information control will deepen and grow, the ONI report said.
International human rights groups, the United States and European governments acknowledge changes in the Southeast Asian country. But they remain concerned about the number of people locked up for non-violently expressing alternatives to decades of one-party communist rule.
We told the Vietnam government that we were pleased about the release of Son, but that there was more to be done in this area, one western diplomat said.
Groups such as Amnesty International said another cyber-dissident Nguyen Van Binh, was serving a seven-year sentence. They also said Ho Chi Minh City police this month arrested a 25-year-old man as he was connecting to a democracy chat room in an Internet cafe.