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December 21 2010

17:05

Vietnam Pushes Facebook Clone to Control Online Speech

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Social Media content on MediaShift is sponsored by the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, a program offering innovative and entrepreneurial journalists the resources of Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Learn more here.

HANOI, VIETNAM - Inside one of Hanoi's more than 3,000 online gaming houses, gamers clad in coats and scarves pass the hours shooting at each other on their screens, oblivious to the wintry gray and 10 celsius evening outside. This is southeast Asia, but the French colonial architecture and the proliferation of tourist-market socialist kitsch -- all covered by a wet blanket autumn gloom -- give the place a slightly European feel.

With the Vietnamese economy growing at an average of seven percent per year over the past decade, and companies such as Microsoft and Intel announcing major investments, there is a limit to how European the ambiance is. There's no downturn or recession here. Although average per capita incomes are little over $1,100 per year, Vietnam is moving up the international economic ranks.

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The growth of online technology and Internet usage in the country is a signal that change is taking place. According to the government, about 25 percent of Vietnam's nearly 90 million people use the Internet. By comparison, I found it extremely difficult to find cafés or bars with WiFi access when walking around Rome last April. In a stretch from the Colosseum to St.Peter's Basilica, the well-worn tourist and pilgrim hub of the Eternal City, I counted five places with WiFi. Yet in downtown Hanoi, almost every decent-sized hotel or eatery has fast and free WiFi. It is a flip of a coin as to which place has the better food, however.

Facebooking Vietnam

Back inside the gaming house, I asked the manager (who requested his name not be published) how to access Facebook. I saw that a few of the gamers take a break from shooting down Japanese World War II soldiers in order to log in to the social networking site. Facebook is blocked in Vietnam, though no official explanation has been offered by the authorities as to why. Nonetheless, the gamers on downtime were doing any of a number of things that apparently all Facebookers do, such as paying undue attention to pictures of cute young women among their contacts, or posting insulting remarks on their friend's pages.

The manager's answer came with with an air of incredulity, and a good measure of self-satisfaction. "We just change the DNS," he said.

The likely reason for the blocking of Facebook is the upcoming Five Year Congress of the ruling Communist Party. A one-party state, the Vietnamese government harbors no dissent, and over the past two months, 20 activists, lawyers, bloggers and religious minority figures have been arrested or jailed for various forms of alleged sedition or threats to national security. Some were denied access to legal representation at what looked like little more than show trials. Human rights groups and overseas Vietnamese say the government is trying to shut up any and all opposing voices in advance of the Congress, when a new leadership could emerge.

Removing Facebook from the equation could be a help to the government's agenda. Blogging has become increasingly popular in Vietnam, and one cause celebre has been a controversial bauxite mine in the country's Central Highlands. Writers criticizing the government's policy have been arrested, while others remain under surveillance. The government has tried, unsuccessfully, to close down one vocal website featuring blog posts flaying the authorities for allegedly kowtowing to China over the project, while anonymous cyber-vandals launched distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) hack attacks on some of the critical blogs and websites.

Mainstream media in Vietnam is affiliated with the government or the ruling Communist Party, and state censors control what can and cannot be said. So online content offers a new, more nimble and fast-paced challenge to the authorities.

Government-Run Facebook Clone

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In trying to take on Facebook, the government has launched its own social networking website, which is said to be the country's biggest-ever IT project. Users have to register with their official ID details, meaning that the government can monitor content and activity on the site.

Vietnam currently has 1.8 million Facebook users and the number of account holders has doubled in the past six months. In absolute and relative numbers, Vietnam is well back in the southeast Asian social networking league. Indonesia has the world's second-biggest Facebook user base after the U.S, with over 32 million users, while almost 20 percent of the citizens in the Philippines are on Facebook. That said, Vietnamese seem to be taking to the social networking giant, meaning that the government faces a challenge to get people away from Facebook and onto go.vn.

I asked the gaming room manager what he thought of go.vn. Nose and brow furrowed, he asked, "What is that?" I asked around the shop, and all but two of the nineteen gamers said much the same.

Big brother might have to work hard to make new friends here.

Photo of traffic in Hanoi by Simon Roughneen

Simon Roughneen is an Irish journalist currently in southeast Asia. He writes for Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, Asia Times, The Irrawaddy, ISN, South China Morning Post and others. He is a radio correspondent affiliated to Global Radio News and has reported for RTÉ, BBC, CBS, CBC Canada, Fox News, and Voice of America. He has worked in and reported from over 30 countries.

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Social Media content on MediaShift is sponsored by the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships, a program offering innovative and entrepreneurial journalists the resources of Stanford University and Silicon Valley. Learn more here.

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December 20 2010

20:52

Brazilian Public Media Faces Tough Digital Transition

Belém, BRAZIL -- At the mouth of the Amazon river, vendors at the Ver-o-Peso market display the region's fruits, fish and crafts on splintered tables and rusting carts. They hail prospective buyers who pass by their closely packed stalls. Just a block over, behind the security gate of the Estação das Docas, a collection of renovated waterfront warehouses, eco-tourists stroll in air conditioned comfort past many of the same goods, which have been marked up and packaged as artisanal delights. The night I visit, one of these former warehouses is dedicated to a pop-up fashion fair for rising designers; a female DJ spins club tunes and ironic T-shirts mock souvenir gear.

Such cheek-to-jowl contradictions are common in Brazil, where income disparities are among the highest in the world, and megacities like São Paulo compete for national resources with tiny towns tucked deep in the rainforest. That reality makes it a challenge for the country's strapped public broadcasting outlets to create content to serve such a wide range of publics. This was the topic of an early December conference, TV Pública: Forum Internacional de Conteúdo, held in Belém's state-of-the-art Hangar Convention Center.

Public Broadcasting Coalesces

Public broadcasting is relatively young in Brazil. While TV Cultura, a private, foundation-funded channel offering arts, kids, documentary and sports programming has been around since the '60s, it was only in late 2007 that the government launched TV Brasil, a federally funded public broadcasting network. It airs Brazilian films, regional and educational programming, and sports. The channel's national over-the-air reach is limited, but it is available via cable, satellite and online.

Locally, public stations perform a variety of functions -- such as providing access to legislative proceedings, educational content and community outreach -- but they are not networked together via shared programming, as PBS member stations are. Now they are centrally administered, as in the case of the BBC. This lack of coordination, and the limited resources allotted these stations via local government funds, will soon be compounded further as the country undertakes the switch from analog to digital broadcast.

The conference, organized by the Brazilian Association of Public, Educational and Cultural Broadcasters, explored these challenges from a variety of perspectives, including content, program coordination and scheduling, infrastructure, funding, management, unwelcome government interference in program choices, and training of a new generation of public media makers. One key question is how stations might possibly hope to fill the four digital channels they will soon acquire in exchange for their one analog signal.

While some independent and non-profit content is broadly available from sources such as
Itaú Cultural
, a cultural institute which subsidizes the distribution of regional arts and music programming to stations, few syndication or rights-sharing arrangements have been developed. Many of the attendees had been to previous conferences to tackle these issues, but this was the first international gathering designed to bring perspectives in from other countries about how to manage such a thorny transition.

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Digital Disruption

Simultaneously, Brazilian communications and cultural authorities are working to figure out how to harness online and mobile technologies for the public good. Just weeks before, the Digital Culture conference issued a "declaration of Internet rights," which asserted "diversity and freedom are the foundation [of] democratic communication. Internet access is a fundamental right." At the TV Pública conference, one speaker described NavegaPara, a project to provide Internet access in the state of Pará, including remote areas of the Amazon.

Questions about how to use the pending digital broadcast signal to provide interactivity or web access via TV dogged the conference. The digital divide is much wider in Brazil than the U.S. While nearly 95 percent of Brazilians have access to television, high taxes and low incomes make electronic device purchases steep; wiring this large and sometimes rugged country has so far proven difficult.

Of course, none of this has stopped citizen reporters from putting the latest technologies to work. As Global Voices reported:

Young residents in the Complexo do Alemão favelas in Rio de Janeiro have begun using social and citizen media to chronicle the recent wave of violence spreading through the city. Seventeen-year-old aspiring journalist Rene Silva has set up a Twitter account, @vozdacomunidade (voice of the community), to monitor the police occupation of the favela complex, with the related hashtag, #vozdacomunidade, already beginning to trend. Meanwhile, @Igorcomunidade is also offering updates of what he calls "a guerra do alemão" (Alemão's War), and another group of young locals has started streaming footage of the occupation.

As in the U.S., producers with one foot in the old and new media worlds are growing a bit weary of discussing the myriad transitions, and are now eager to start building multi-platform public media models that can thrive. Francisco Belda, the director of a local newspaper near São Paulo that is considering ways to transition from print to digital is also a professor at São Paulo State University. He led a workshop at the TV Pública conference on how to create a new programming grid for public stations. We discussed his impatience with the pace of both industry and policy change.

"I'm tired of all this talk," he told me. "We are ready for action."

Jessica Clark directs the Future of Public Media Project at American University's Center for Social Media, and is a Knight Media Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation.

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