On February 16, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen signed a sub-decree to set up a National Internet Gateway (NIG).
The Cambodian government initially proposed the NIG in July 2020 with the stated goal of controlling and monitoring online traffic. The system will route all international internet traffic through a single entry point.
According to the 11-page decree released on February 17, the NIG is intended to “facilitate and manage domestic and international internet connections, to enhance national revenue collection effectively, to protect national security, and to maintain social order."
A government-appointed operator tasked with setting up the system will work with other authorities to block and/or disconnect any network connections deemed to undermine those goals or violate "morality, culture, traditions, and customs.”
The NIG operator will report directly to the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications.
By February 2022, all internet service providers (ISPs) will have to route their traffic through the national gateway. Internet users will be required to fill out identification verification forms provided by ISPs. Apart from controlling and monitoring online traffic, Cambodian authorities will also be able to cut off access to the internet.
Critics warn Cambodia is seeking to set up its own version of China’s “Great Firewall,” which strictly monitors and censors content that appears online. The Voice of America reported that Cambodia’s government proposed the system amid growing international criticism of its crackdown on the country’s civil society and political opposition, with Hun Sen increasing his grip on power while his rivals face criminal prosecution.
Government spokesperson Phay Siphan dismissed those concerns, saying the government was acting within its rights and duties to establish the NIG to maintain social order, the independent Cambodian news outlet VOD reported.
“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’s comparison is misleading. While regulations governing the internet exist throughout the world, the degree of control being sought by the Cambodian government far exceeds that in the U.S., where free speech protections are paramount.
Laura DeNardis, an internet governance scholar, professor and interim dean of the School of Communication at American University in Washington, D.C., told Polygraph.info the NIG runs contrary to how the internet is designed.
“Funneling internet traffic through a single gateway is fundamentally incompatible with how the internet works globally, both in design and practice. Such a governance choice potentially creates a concentration point for censorship and surveillance, but also a point of vulnerability for hackers, outages and foreign espionage,” DeNardis said.
Other tech-focused associations and experts voiced similar concerns.
In December 2020, the Asian Internet Coalition (AIC), an association of leading internet and technology companies, warned that the NIG would not enhance Cambodia’s internet connectivity, as claimed by the government.
“What it does is grant the Government extraordinary powers to arbitrarily block online content or network connections. Undermining citizens’ rights to internet access raises grave concerns about freedom of expression, media censorship, and user privacy,” the association said in a statement.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned that the NIG could have “a chilling effect on online communications.”
“Cambodia’s National Internet Gateway is the missing tool in the government’s toolbox for online repression,” said Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director. “It’s no coincidence that after shutting down critical media across the country, the Hun Sen government has now turned its attention to online critics, just in time for the nationally organized commune elections due in 2022.”
Citing the Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, the Thomas Reuters Foundation said restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and information on nation security grounds “are illegitimate if they are a pretext for protecting the government or concealing information about the government.”
“Hun Sen’s track record raises concern that the NIG will be abused to censor criticism or block access to sensitive information,” the foundation said.
The U.S. government-funded human rights group Freedom House ranked Cambodia’s internet as partially free in its Freedom on the Net 2020 report.
“A reliable and diverse information space has been undermined by website blocks, the revocation of online news outlets’ licenses over critical reporting, and content manipulation,” the report stated. “… [I]nternet users continued to face pretrial detention and convictions for other online activity.”
In the first three months of 2020, 17 people, including opposition activists and a 14-year-old girl, were arrested for sharing information about the coronavirus online in Cambodia.
A woman was arrested for dressing provocatively while selling products on Facebook. Numerous others have been detained and/or imprisoned for uploading political posts.
In December 2020, two rappers were jailed for posting songs critical of the government on YouTube. Youth activist Kong Raiya was incarcerated for advertising T-shirts online bearing the name and words of murdered activist Kem Ley.
The crackdown extends offline, with activists from the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) regularly assaulted, most recently on February 16.
Mass trials of opposition figures began in January, with 121 people affiliated with the CNRP charged with treason or incitement.
CNRP leader Kem Sokha is currently on trial for treason. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said the case had “clearly resulted from the exercise of his right to take part in the government of his country.”
Apart from being a tool of censorship, critics say the NIG is also technically deficient and will create security concerns.
The AIC said that creating a bottleneck for all international internet traffic could “deteriorate internet speed and increase cybersecurity risks, impacting all internet users in the country, including any Cambodian business that has an online presence.”
The association added that the decision to deny Cambodians internet connection alternatives risked dampening innovation, foreign investment and “the growth of Cambodia’s nascent digital economy.”
“Considering that the digital economy and the political sphere are so dependent on the internet, this choice could backfire by creating a technical vulnerability. Architectures of decentralization, redundancy, and interoperability are a far more responsible choice for security, the economy, and society,” she said.
The Phnom Penh-based Cambodian Center for Human Rights noted that the likely throttling of internet speeds caused by such bottlenecking had “discouraged other governments’ attempts to create NIGs, including Thailand’s national internet gateway proposal, which was scrapped in 2015.”
The United States has long operated under an internet model whose controls bear little resemblance to Cambodia’s plan. In its 2020 report, Freedom House ranked the U.S. the seventh-most free out of 65 countries, accounting for 87% of global internet traffic.
The report did note the U.S. had experienced four consecutive years of decline, spurred by increased surveillance of social media by federal and local law enforcement, “targeted harassment and even spurious criminal charges for their posts or retweets,” and the “arbitrary and disproportionate response” by the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump to halt transactions with the Chinese-owned TikTok and WeChat on national security grounds.
Still, the U.S. internet is relatively free and is not subject to state censorship or anything like Cambodia’s National Internet Gateway.
The OpenNet Initiative, a collaborative partnership between the University of Toronto, Harvard University, and the SecDev Group, noted that many U.S. government attempts to regulate internet content have been barred on First Amendment grounds. (The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech, religion, assembly and presenting grievances.)
“In contrast to much of the world, where ISPs are subject to state mandates, most content regulation in the United States and Canada occurs at the private level,” the OpenNet Initiative said.
In 2013, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission estimated the U.S. had roughly 7,800 internet providers, half the global total at the time. More recently, BroadbandNow, which aggregates information on internet providers, estimated the number of U.S. internet providers at 2,758. That tally excludes unlicensed wireless operators and local overbuilders — firms that build fiber-optic and cable internet over existing telephone and cable companies.
In April 2020, Cambodia’s TRC said 68 internet and nine mobile service providers were operating in the country. Nevertheless, Siphan called the internet in Cambodia “disorderly.”
In the United States, an internet service provider can only be compelled to shut down by a court order. That, coupled with the large number of ISPs, makes an internet “kill switch” in the U.S. largely unfeasible.