Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemns a Cambodian government sub-decree on the creation of a “National Internet Gateway” that will allow the authorities to arbitrarily block Internet connections and online information. This sub-decree must be rescinded, because it will place the Internet under state control and create a system of censorship violating the right to be informed, RSF said.
Signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen on 16 February, the decree provides for a level of control over news and information that has not been seen in Cambodia since the Khmer Rouge dictatorship.
As from next year, Internet access providers will have to redirect all user traffic via a new “National Internet Gateway” run by an operator subject to governmental directives. For Cambodia’s 14.8 million Internet users, it will become the only point of access to all national and international websites.
The exact date on which implementation will begin is not yet known, but the decree’s declared aim is to “facilitate and manage domestic and international Internet connections.” In reality, it also constitutes a new legal weapon that will facilitate online information control because this single gateway will enable the authorities to recover Internet users’ private data and to entirely or partially block Internet content.
According to articles 6 and 12, the telecommunications ministry and any other relevant ministry will be able to demand the blocking of any website or portion of the Internet that is deemed to “affect the national revenue, security, social order, morality, culture, traditions or customs.” No precise definition of these terms is provided.
Based on China’s “Great Firewall”
The authorities will also be able to spy on online user activities. Users will have to identify themselves in order to access the gateway. Their browser data, including their IP address and browsing history, will be stored by the national operator for at least a year, according to article 14, which sets no limit on how long the data can be held.
The government also gives itself the right to monitor access provider infrastructure and equipment. These violations of the confidentiality of online browsing and user privacy pose a threat to independent journalists and will hamper their work.
“The creation of this new gateway is very likely to signify the end of the freedom to inform on the Internet, which continues to be one of the few spaces where the Cambodian government’s critics can still speak out,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“The gateway envisaged in this sub-decree is just a crude copy of the ‘Great Firewall’ developed by the Chinese authorities, who have become experts in censorship and surveillance at the international level. Prime Minister Hun Sen is jeopardizing the development of his country’s civil society and economy in order to maintain his grip on the power he has held for the past 35 years. We urge the country’s leaders to act responsibly by abandoning a project that violates the right to news and information.”
The “Great Firewall” on which the decree is based was gradually built by China in order to control the news and information available to Chinese Internet users, as RSF describes in its 2019 report entitled “China’s Pursuit of a New World Media Order.”
Last year, Hun Sen reinforced his legislative machinery for controlling independent media by using the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext for adopting an emergency law institutionalizing censorship of all media outlets.
Cambodia is ranked 144th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index.