Prime Minister Hun Sen signed a National Internet Gateway into existence this week, as a government spokesperson explained the initiative would help to control “disorderly” internet service providers.
A rights group raised concerns that the policy would further shrink the space for online speech, but one technology expert said the type of facility had already been made “completely obsolete by modern technology.”
The sub-decree, signed on Monday, allows the government to appoint an operator to control the gateway, which would be overseen by the Telecommunications Ministry, Telecom Regulator of Cambodia and other relevant authorities.
Among its roles, the operator would be allowed to “take action to prevent and disconnect all networks that impact national revenue, safety, public order, morality, culture, traditions [and] norms,” as well as follow other instructions from the Telecom Ministry.
The sub-decree also requires the gateway operator to collect identification information for all internet users in the country.
As part of the policy, the internet gateway operator would have to file to the ministry reports monthly, quarterly and annually on internet traffic, and the ministry could suspend or revoke the operator’s license if it is not content with the operator’s work.
All internet service providers would need to reroute their networks through the new national gateway by next February, the sub-decree says.
Telecommunications Ministry spokesperson Meas Po said the ministry would soon make an announcement seeking companies to operate the internet gateway.
He added that the policy is also meant to “legitimize” the country’s internet service providers, as there are several operators in the market.
“After the sub-decree is issued, each company has to ask for a license from the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications or the Telecommunications Regulator of Cambodia, and the ministry will issue conditions for providing licenses,” he said. “This is to have clear gateways, and we can control the data easily.”
He further defended the decision to collect user identification, saying it was no different than applying for a SIM card.
Government spokesperson Phay Siphan said it was completely within the government’s rights and duties to establish an internet gateway in order to control social order.
“When we first drive a car, we have to follow the traffic law,” he said. “[Is there] any country which does not control the Internet? The USA and England have it, and they have spent a lot of money on counterterrorism, so Cambodia made this sub-decree by learning from other countries.”
Siphan described the internet in Cambodia as “disorderly,” as there were about 10 internet operators.
In 2018, one internet provider, Sinet, announced on Twitter that it had followed government orders requesting all internet service providers to block the website of the defunct newspaper the Cambodia Daily. But the Daily’s website had remained accessible on some internet providers.
James Griffiths, an expert on China’s “Great Firewall” — that country’s method of widespread digital censorship — said Cambodia’s plan seems to follow a similar model to the Chinese gateway.
The Great Firewall also uses private companies, from internet service providers and telecom companies to social media platforms, in order to maintain the high level of censorship. Though the Chinese system works because the government is “confident that it has the legal or political powers to punish the companies should they step out of line.”
He noted that the gateway operator is allowed to block content for an “incredibly broad” range of issues, but it is too early to tell how they would apply this mandate.
“In theory … the authorities could block any websites or content they want to,” he said in an email. “The technology for this is not particularly complicated, and has existed for a long time, it works similarly to how an office or school network may block certain websites, just on a national scale. The test of the system would be how it handles attempts to circumvent blocking, using tools such as VPNs, proxy servers, or the TOR network.”
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the sub-decree was passed without independent oversight, and that the government had not addressed any of the concerns that civil society raised after the draft text leaked last year.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen struck a dangerous blow against internet freedom and e-commerce in Cambodia by expanding the government’s control over the country’s internet,” Robertson said in a statement. “Foreign governments, tech companies, e-commerce businesses, and other private actors should urgently call on the government to reverse the adoption of this harmful sub-decree.”
However, Mike Gaertner, the founder of the Cambodian Network Exchange and co-founder and chief operations officer of Sabay Digital, said the government’s attempt to regulate content through the gateway could be futile.
“If you start at the discussion about a national internet gateway, it was basically something that was a relevant institution to set up 10 years ago and has been made completely obsolete by modern technology,” he said.
The Cambodian government already has the power to regulate the internet content of users inside the country — via a team of content moderators and traditional investigation methods, he said — but it would not be able to regulate content produced out of state.
The new sub-decree also focuses on internet service providers, but content providers like Google and Facebook keep interactions between users encrypted, so the government could potentially detect the presence of conversations but not what’s said between parties.
Likewise, the gateway would not be able to detect Facebook’s local advertising in order to charge it taxes, an issue that is currently putting local services, which are taxed, at a disadvantage, he said.
“Your opportunity to influence the content providers … is very limited and very expensive,” he said. He added that any internet service provider that attempts to take up the task of gateway operator would be unable to follow orders to block content, or end up slowing internet speeds in order to do so, which would violate the gateway law’s requirement to maintain internet capacity.
He said the Cambodian Network Exchange was started as a way to give internet providers and telecom companies access to all networks, and by 2019 all ISPs were involved. This is further beneficial to content producers in Cambodia, from news sites to businesses to apps, he said, as they can access customers regardless what internet service they’re using.
He’s not sure what impact the gateway will have on the Cambodian Network Exchange, and he hasn’t yet been advised by the ministry. In terms of enforcement, Gaertner said he believed the government is within its rights to control domestic internet content, and he dismissed civil society concerns over the gateway because the gateway would not technically change the investigations of posts and social media conversations that are already happening. However, he felt the government should instead focus on “data sovereignty,” or bringing cloud computing platforms into Cambodia.
Siphan, the government spokesperson, quashed civil society concerns, claiming that other governments had done more to suppress the internet.
“What civil society or non governmental organizations have mentioned are negative things about how the government has responsibility under the law … they are not civil society but they are activists against the government, and even though the government copied the law from the USA, they said it is wrong.”
In December, a coalition of internet companies, including Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Twitter, issued a statement saying the gateway plan posed risks to businesses, citizens’ rights and internet speeds.
Updated at 3:45 p.m. with comment from Mike Gaertner.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated that the gateway could help tax foreign companies like Facebook.