The Cambodian government issued a directive to establish a National Internet Gateway that would control online traffic, despite rights groups criticizing the move they say will give the government wide-ranging powers to control internet access.
The sub-decree titled the “Establishment of the National Internet Gateway (NIG)” is drafted by the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications and signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen on February 16, according to Ek Tha, a spokesperson at the office of the Council of Ministers. The sub-decree builds on provisions already present in the Law on Telecommunications.
The sub-decree was posted on the Council of Ministers Facebook page and is similar to a draft leaked in September. The directive establishes a National Internet Gateway (NIG) that will control all internet operations in the country.
The government will issue NIG licenses to operators, though there is no detail or clarity over who can apply to be a NIG operator, and, thereby, have unfettered access to the country’s internet infrastructure.
The NIG operator will work to enhance “national revenue collection”, to “protect national security” and to assure “social order,” to protect “culture and national tradition”, terms often used in other vaguely defined legislation.
“NIG is established to facilitate and manage domestic and international internet connections,” according to Article 4 of the sub-decree.
The sub-decree states that internet operators have to work in coordination with the Telecom Ministry, Telecommunication Regulator of Cambodia, and other relevant authorities.
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.”
A few new additions to the document include an appeals system if an “individual” is unhappy with an order issued under the sub-decree and penalties for NIG operators found to violate their responsibilities, which could result in the operators losing their license.
The new sub-decree comes as the Myanmar military had consistently blocked internet access after taking control of the country during a coup in early February. India has also blocked internet access to thwart farmer-led protests outside the capital of New Delhi, apart from having frequent and long-term disruptions in the centrally administered region of Jammu and Kashmir.
Cambodia has not been shied to use sophisticated, and rudimentary, surveillance techniques against detractors of the government and even blocked websites before the last election.
In a May 2018 government notice, the Ministries of Telecommunications, Information, and Interior formed a working group to monitor the accuracy of news on online media platforms and social media, with each ministry tasked with different roles in the online monitoring mechanism.
The government also instructed internet service providers to block 17 websites days before the 2018 national election because they were likely to “obstruct the election.” Ministries and provincial officials have also been asked to monitor the content posted by citizens, including in private messaging groups.
Recent trials against former Cambodia National Rescue Party officials and supporters have revealed the use of private phone conversations and messages to charge individuals for a slew of crimes.
Cambodia has seen an exponential increase in internet usage, especially the use of social media services like Facebook. A lot of this usage is done via mobile phones, with 10 million Cambodians, around 65 percent of the population, having access to mobile data services.
Rights groups say these actions do not bode well for how the government may use the new NIG directive, raising concerns that it could be used to target specific individuals or groups in the country.
Minister of Post and Telecommunications Chea Vandeth rejected any concerns raised by civil society groups over the government’s intentions with the new directive. He said the operators would only control the traffic but not have access to data.
“They [NGOs] just speak vaguely. They don’t know about this,” he said on Wednesday.
“It is like cars on the National Roads. We don’t know what kinds of cars are on the roads. We just control the traffic to ensure that it is not jammed.”
Ith Sothoeuth, a media director at the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, said the sub-decree will legally allow the government to “completely control” what content can be accessed on the internet, especially factual and critical news published by independent news outlets.
“The government can filter or block any news that they are unhappy with,” he said.
“I believe it is another risk for the media since the government can completely control what is viewed on the internet,” he added.
Ngeth Moses, an independent cybersecurity consultant, said that while the establishment of an internet gateway can help with user data management, internet service management, and national security, there are concerns over what the government will do with the data.
“I am concerned about the storage of internet users’ data traffic. When will it be removed? I don’t see any period limitation [in the sub-decree],” he said.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, said Cambodia’s adoption of the National Internet Gateway was not good news for Cambodians, but also bad for businesses.
“In a single act, the government has made rights-abusing censorship and control of the internet far more likely and guaranteed increased damage to the many companies and entrepreneurs, both large and small, who rely on a fast and uninterrupted internet to do their business,” he said in an email to VOA Khmer.