A Chinese-style internet gateway set to be imposed on Cambodia this week would grant the government far greater powers to conduct mass surveillance, censorship and control of the country’s internet, rights groups have warned.
Human rights experts and media advocates fear the gateway is a step towards the kind of censorship imposed by China’s Great Firewall – although some question the technical capacity currently available Cambodian systems and say the process lacked transparency.
Under the changes, all online traffic must pass through a National Internet Gateway (NIG), which the government says will protect national security, help with tax collection and preserve “social order, culture and tradition national”.
Rights experts say the internet is one of the few spaces that still allows freedom of expression, including criticism of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government, which has been in power for more than three decades. Under his rule, the main opposition party was banned, independent media severely restricted and peaceful protesters faced violence.
Having stamped out dissent elsewhere, the government is now seeking to further extend its control over the online sphere, rights advocates have warned. “They want to have a tightly controlled political environment where they are lords and masters and whatever they say is accepted – and anyone who opposes it is sent to jail,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch for Human Rights Watch. ‘Asia.
Internet service providers were to redirect their traffic through the gateway by this week.
The Cambodian government did not respond when asked about the timeline for implementation or the human rights concerns that were raised. He has previously dismissed comments from UN experts that the legislation is repressive, with the country’s Permanent Mission to the UN offices in Geneva accusing the experts of making unfounded allegations and interfering in affairs. interiors of Cambodia.
Authorities have increasingly taken steps to clamp down on online expression, including jailing people for posts, messages and even music. Last year, at least 35 people were arrested, five faced arrest warrants and 21 were convicted for online postings, according to the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCDH).
Among those targeted in recent years are rapper Kea Sokun, who spent a year in prison after being convicted of incitement in 2020 in relation to music he shared online; three activists from the environmental group Mother Nature Cambodia, who had shared information on social media about plans to march to the prime minister’s house; and Kak Sovannchhay, the teenage son of an opposition activist and politician, who spent four and a half months in pretrial detention. Sovannchhay, who has autism and was 16 at the time, defended his father in comments made on Telegram and shared Facebook posts criticizing the government.
Authorities have also found other ways to suppress information online, including ordering internet service providers to block certain pages, such as news sites. According to civil society groups, internet service providers have also slowed internet speeds to disrupt their activities, including live broadcasts, while activists and media have faced localized power outages.
“Therefore, it is very likely that the NIG will become another instrument for the Royal Government of Cambodia to control and monitor the flow of information in Cambodia,” said Sopheap Chak, Executive Director of CCDH.
The gateway, she added, facilitates mass surveillance, interception and censorship of digital communications and collection of personal data.
Naly Pilorge, director of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, said the application of such a gateway would be devastating and would violate the constitution, as well as several conventions and treaties including the Cambodia is a signatory.
“It would completely shut down the ability of citizens to speak out to share information. It would lead to even greater closure in terms of civil society, in terms of activism in terms of issues that affect Cambodians,” she said.
There are also concerns that the system could slow down internet speeds, which would harm business activity and foreign investment.
Despite the looming deadline for implementation, there is little information about how the gateway will work, Robertson said. The Cambodian government might want to give the impression that it was introducing a Chinese-style firewall, he added, but it was unclear whether it had the capacity to do so.
“There’s no clarity on how they’re doing this, what kind of form it’s going to take, what kind of technology is being introduced,” he said. However, the law is likely to lead to increased self-censorship, just as the country prepares for communal elections in June and a national election next year.
“If you put something on the internet that criticizes the government, who knows maybe the NIG is coming for you?” said Robertson