For years, the internet has been relatively free of the government control pervasive elsewhere in Vietnam. But several recent decrees have curtailed free speech by the country's fast-growing number of bloggers.

According to the gazette published by the ministry of information and communications, prohibited online acts include "opposing the state of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, undermining national security and social order and safety, destroying the all-people great unity bloc, spreading propaganda on wars of aggression . . . obscenity and debauchery, crime, social evils, superstition and destroying national fine customs and traditions".

It is not clear whether Vietnam will be able to rein in freedom of expression on the internet in the way the Chinese Communist party has, even though it has access to similar technology to its northern neighbour.

Vietnam was a latecomer to the online age, but the extraordinary economic growth of the past few years has triggered an explosive growth in internet use. Best estimates say some 24m of the country's 88m people regularly use the web.

"We are seeing the maturing of a generation that see the internet as part of their life," says Kim Ninh, head of the Asia Foundation's office in Hanoi. "People are looking to blogs for news they can't get in the mainstream media."

They are also discussing politics, testing the bounds of the one-party state, pushing for more electoral involvement and posing difficult questions about how governments achieve legitimacy. All this bypasses the carefully controlled dialogue in the state media.

By contrast, many internet users in China lack the awareness of what they are missing, says Rebecca MacKinnon of the University of Hong Kong's journalism and media studies centre. "What is most powerful on the internet is when it goes viral, but the way the censorship has been set up in China, it has been successful in preventing political momentum forming."

That is not the case in Vietnam, where users have had relatively unfettered internet access.

But recent developments give cause for concern. Peter Leech, an Australian who set up a news aggregation site called intellasia.com which operated from Ho Chi Minh City, says he published little commentary and generated almost no content, but began having problems with the authorities last June.

His offices were frequently raided by police, he says, and there were unexplained denials of service on the US-based server that hosted the site. He has since left the country.

The vast majority of Vietnamese bloggers use platforms created by Yahoo and Google, and the government seems keen to enlist the help of these large US internet companies in policing the internet.

A law passed last year requires all service providers established under Vietnamese law to provide information on users who violate the prohibitions set out by the information ministry.

Yahoo says it has not been approached over controls.

By Tim Johnston - The Finacial Times - january 30, 2009