Cambodia’s new law regarding internet use could be a further step taken by the government to censor dissent and restrict free speech. When Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen signed a sub-decree on the 16th of February 2021 on the establishment of a National Internet Gateway, human rights groups froze. Allowing internet surveillance, the law is designed for the government to receive all internet activities on Cambodian ground through a single portal. Accordingly, all service providers would be obligated to work together with said government to allow it access to relevant information. What it concretely means is that blocking content, restricting internet access, or even monitoring all web traffic will now be possible. Censorship would hence be be more easily and broadly applied all around the country.
The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), the ruling party of the country for the past three decades, has been increasing its control on politics and society. Becoming more restrictive and limiting, the state has made over 30 arrests over digital matters since 2020. The authoritarian approach to internet use is to be considered within a broader global issue. Many countries have recently been influenced by China’s “Great Firewall”, a sophisticated internet censorship system. Although not intended to be as strict as the Chinese technology, the Cambodian law falls within this tendency in progression around the world.
The beginning of these controlling measures over the internet can be traced back to the 2013 elections. Through the use of Facebook, the opposition significantly made gains, motivating the CPP to take action to prevent a future defeat. It hence developed a two-folded strategy: tackling social media outlets and extending its media control. Followed several measures heading toward a similar restrictive policy. In 2015, the Telecommunications Law was passed to monitor private speech. In 2018, it was an Inter-Ministerial Proclamation on Website and Social Media Control that mandates service providers to monitor content by installing surveillance software. In addition, the government took action against dissent. It suppressed certain media, arrested, used violence, or even sent to prison government critics. Moreover, its closer relationship with China resulted in the Hun Sen government gradually becoming more empowered in regard to the digital sphere. The timing of the National Internet Gateway isn’t fortuitous. With commune elections and general elections coming up in 2022 and 2022, the government is aware of how such a law could have an effect on results and ultimately, political dynamics.
The announcement of the law rose heavy criticism from numerous groups. Foreign governments, free speech advocates, and human rights groups were quick to express concern over the government’s new policy. Human Rights Watch described it as “the missing tool in the government’s toolbox for online repression”, voicing fear of upcoming mass surveillance attempts. These reluctant bodies are warning against both human rights violations and the potential damage that could be done to commercial and business activities as well as foreign investments. Moreover: its enforcement would be contrary to conventions and treaties signed by Cambodia as well as its own Constitution.
The postponement of the law was announced in February 2022. The reason behind the delay most likely is harsh criticism received although the government denies it. The latter deplores what it frames as a “misunderstanding” of the law and refutes the restriction of freedom of speech allegations. Moreover, it has rejected all UN comments on the subject. According to the Cambodian state, the law will solely be put into place for security matters. It has promised a bill on personal data protection to further reassure Cambodian citizens as well as the international community. Such a commitment isn’t believed by many though, because, as Southeast Asia Editor at The Diplomat Sebastian Strangio puts it: “what is written in Cambodian laws is rarely if ever translated to reality”.
The internet gateway raises questions about the future of the internet, even more so in an authoritarian context. The web and social media as free expression outlets are of crucial importance. They sometimes are the few instances where individuals living under a strict regime can fully have access to new thinking, be open to different opinions, and debate online.
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- McDermid, C. (2022). Cambodia’s Internet May Soon be Like China’s: State-Controlled. Retrieved on: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/15/business/cambodia-arrests-internet.html?searchResultPosition=8
- Ratcliffe, R. (2022). Fears Cambodia is rolling out China-style “Great Firewall” to curb
online freedom. Retrieved on: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/feb/14/fears-cambodia-is-rolling-out-china-style-great-firewall-to-curb-online-freedom
- Strangio, S. (2022). Cambodia Puts Controversial National Internet Gateway Plan on Hold.
Retrieved on: https://thediplomat.com/2022/02/cambodia-puts-controversial-national-internet-gateway-plan-on-hold/
*Photo by Max DeRoin, Creative Commons Zero license.