HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam (AP) — It's a wildly popular website laden with unlicensed songs and Hollywood movies, a prime exhibit of the digital piracy that is strangling the music industry in Asia and eroding legitimate online sales around the world.
The free-to-download bonanza has pushed Vietnam's Zing.vn into the ranks of the globe's top 550 websites. But a few clicks inside the site reveal a surprising presence: the U.S. government, which maintains a bustling social media account there.
Washington is a vocal proponent of intellectual property rights in Vietnam as it is around the world, and a site like Zing would be shut down in the United States. But with space for public diplomacy limited in Communist Vietnam, the American embassy uses its "Zingme" account to reach out to young people in Vietnam as it seeks to build closer ties with its former enemy.
The embassy's presence shows just how mainstream pirate sites have become in Vietnam, where the government does nothing to stop them operating. But it also raises questions whether Washington is legitimizing a renowned pirate site that record labels, singers and industry groups say ignores requests that it take down infringing material.
Coca-Cola and Samsung pulled their advertising from the site earlier this month because of piracy concerns following questions by The Associated Press. The move challenged Zing's business model and was praised by recording industry groups. Samsung said last week it was also closing its Zingme account for the same reason.
The embassy said it recognizes the concerns for U.S. copyright interests posed by Zing but that it believes that contact with the website's users could reduce traffic or infringing activity on it. The mission sometimes uses its Zingme page to post about copyright infringement.
Its statement noted that the site had removed, at its request, the link to infringing material that appears on other Zingme pages as a matter of course. It also noted to its lack of options in a country where the Communist government controls the media, saying "there were few spaces for public discourse and intermittent access to Facebook", referring to a block the government sometimes puts on the American social networking site.
But not everyone thinks engaging with Zing is the right thing to do.
"Here we are as an American company trying to set things right with one of the biggest pirates in Vietnam but the U.S. embassy is essentially showing its support by being on its site," said Mimi Nguyen, an American who has been trying fruitlessly to get Zing to take down some 10,000 songs owned by her family's business for a year.
"It is really sad to find out the embassy is using their platform."
The Recording Industry Association of America, which praised the decision by Samsung and Coke to withdrawn from Zing and has labeled Zing a "notorious" pirate site, said it was neither endorsing nor criticizing the embassy's decision to maintain the site.
Zingme closely resembles Facebook, which recently overtook the Vietnamese site in subscriber numbers, according to one research group. Facebook is sometimes blocked by the government because of fears it could be used to mobilize dissent against its one-party rule. Zingme is never blocked, and is more popular with younger, less educated Vietnamese. Companies and institutions often have accounts on both. The embassy has more than 18,000 friends on Zingme, compared to 12,000 on Facebook.
Many in the industry have no choice but to work with Zing even as it distributes their music and films for free. Not having your music on the site means getting an audience for live concerts, or attracting commercial sponsorship, is almost impossible, industry executives said. But a few are pushing back, among them established singer Le Quyen, who is suing Zing and eight other infringing websites.
Brummitt can be reached at https://twitter.com/cjbrummitt