The Cambodian government has proposed the establishment of a national internet gateway to control and monitor online traffic, drawing concerns among rights groups and businesses.
The proposal was detailed in a July sub-decree titled the “Establishment of the National Internet Gateway (NIG)”. The sub-decree, obtained by VOA Khmer last week, states that once the NIG is established it will control all internet operations in the country.
Further, the document states that the purpose was to enhance “national revenue collection”, to “protect national security” and to assure “social order,” terms often used in other vaguely-defined legislation.
“NIG is established to facilitate and manage domestic and international internet connections,” reads Article 4 of the sub-decree.
Human rights groups have said the NIG proposal will likely be used to block people from accessing content on the internet that is critical of the government.
The government has arrested dozens of people recently for allegedly posting “fake news” about the COVID-19 pandemic, using the outbreak to justify these arrests. A number of these people were affiliated to the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party.
Also, the government blocked at least 17 websites days before the 2018 national election because they were “likely to obstruct” the elections. The blocked websites included Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and Voice of Democracy.
Ith Sothoeuth, media director at the Cambodian Center for Independent Media which runs Voice of Democracy, said the sub-decree’s vague language could be used against those who express their concerns or post negative comments about the government’s actions.
“The terms used in the sub-decree are vague, so it is easy for the government, as well as the authorities, to use the sub-decree or the content of the sub-decree to delete or to omit any information that they are not happy with,” he said.
Article 6 of the sub-decree states that an NIG operator will be appointed by the government and has to work in coordination with the Telecom Ministry, Telecommunication Regulator of Cambodia, and other relevant authorities. There is no clarity in the sub-decree over who can or will operate and manage this gateway, except that the entity will have near-complete control of internet infrastructure and traffic.
This operator will store and provide routine status reports – as frequent as weekly updates – to the government and telecom regulators, while having the broadly defined power to “take action in blocking and disconnecting all network connections that affect safety national revenue social order, dignity culture, traditions, and customs.”
Phil Robertson, the Asia deputy director for Human Rights Watch, said the contents of the sub-decree made it clear that the intent was to control and monitor the flow of information of Cambodians.
“The sub-decree's language and intent show a truly rights-abusing, a dictatorial mindset that seeks to control everything the Cambodian people see and hear.”
He added that the development should raise red flags for the business community, given the potential to slowdown and filter information flow, which is critical for business processes.
Robertson said a similar proposal in 2015 was made in Thailand but quickly shut down after the local business community protested the move.
“This is what sank this idea in Thailand, when the business community revolted against the NCPO junta's efforts to force all internet traffic through one channel,” he added.
Stephen Higgins, a managing partner at the Phnom Penh-based Mekong Strategic Partners, said that sub-decree seemed to have a more negative than positive impact on the way the internet is run in Cambodia.
“I think it is likely to add cost and complexity. It is not clear what benefit it has, other than giving RGC more control over internet traffic which most people wouldn’t see as a positive,” he said.
Cambodia has seen an increase in internet usage in recent years, especially mobile data usage. Social media has become integral to how citizens communicate, with a lot of online activity conducted via social media platforms.
According to Geeks in Cambodia, a platform covering the online space, around nine million people in Cambodia used Facebook in 2019, of which 70 percent were in the 18 to 30 age brackets.