HANOI, Vietnam — Vietnam’s booming Internet scene is littered with failed startups that tried to take on Google and other entrenched U.S web companies. That’s not deterring a newly launched Russian-Vietnamese outfit which believes it can unseat the American search engine in this fast-growing Asian market and also contend with a jittery, authoritarian government seeking to clamp down on freedom of expression online.
Like Google rivals elsewhere, Coc Coc, or “Knock Knock” in English, believes the ubiquitous search engine doesn’t get the nuances of the local language. It says its algorithms make for a better, quicker search in Vietnamese, while its local knowledge means the information served will be more relevant — and hence more valuable. Coc Coc also flags another possible vulnerability: Google has no office or staff in Vietnam. The company, whose code of conduct includes the phrase “Don’t be evil,” is concerned about the liability it faces over content hosted on its servers and having to cooperate with censorship requests by Vietnam’s authoritarian, one-party government.
Unlike other past hopefuls, Coc Coc is not short of cash.
The company has so far spent $10 million, hired 300 staff — including 30 foreigners, mostly Russians — and spread itself out over four floors of a downtown office block in the Vietnamese capital. According to Coc Coc’s founders, its investors have $100 million over the next five years to try and get a chunk of the 97 percent of Vietnamese web surfers who currently use Google to switch. They declined to name the investors.
“When I came here, I had some understanding why Vietnam was a good market to beat Google,” said Mikhail Kostin, the company’s chief search expert and like others in Coc Coc, a veteran at Russia’s largest Internet company, Mail.Ru. “But after living here for one year, I understand the language and market much more deeply. I’m sure it’s right.”
Close to a third of Vietnam’s 90 million people are online and men and women browsing phones and tablets are a common sight in the cafes of its towns and cities. The country’s potential for growth, its young population and good Internet infrastructure have made it an attractive destination for regional and international investors and startups in online content, e-payment and other services.
Companies, however, have to factor in legal and political uncertainties. Shaken by an explosion in online dissent, the government is drafting laws that would tighten freedom of expression on the Internet and possibly force companies such as Google to keep their servers inside the country. It routinely blocks and filters sensitive sites, sentences bloggers to long jail terms and is alleged to be involved in hacking attacks on websites critical of the ruling party.
Patrick Sharbaugh, a lecturer in Asian Internet studies at RMIT International University Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City, wondered whether Coc Coc might be more willing to censor search results on behalf of the government, something Chinese search engine Baidu does for Beijing.
While not as close as they once were, Russia and Vietnam have a special relationship because of their shared ideological history.
But there is so far no sign that Coc Coc is prepared to play the role of Hanoi’s favorite Internet son.