- May 24, 2020 6:08 AM
- March 23, 2020 8:19 AM
- June 10, 2021 8:38 PM
Following warnings from big tech, local experts and human rights advocates, the government appears to be pushing on with its plan to introduce a National Internet Gateway that could threaten digital development in Cambodia.
PHNOM PENH--Despite wide-ranging backlash, the Cambodian government has maintained that the proposed National Internet Gateway will go ahead as planned, citing the benefits they claim it will bring while failing to address concerns raised by the private sector, academia and rights activists.
Earlier this month, the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC)—a digital industry association which counts including Amazon, AirBnb, Apple, Booking.com, Expedia Group, Facebook, Grab, Google, LinkedIn, LINE, Rakuten and Twitter among its members—released a statement urging Cambodia to reassess the planned National Internet Gateway.
“The National Internet Gateway (NIG) Sub-Decree will not achieve the stated objective of enhancing the effectiveness of Cambodia’s internet connectivity,” said Jeff Paine, managing director of the AIC. “What it does is grant the Government extraordinary powers to arbitrarily block online content or network connections.”
Paine concerns were echoed by rights group LICADHO, who also argued that the sub-decree would further jeopardize the rights of Cambodians, notably freedom of expression, freedom of the press, but also stating that the plan would undermine citizens’ rights to access the internet and user privacy.
“Routing all international internet traffic through a single point of entry may deteriorate internet speed and increase cybersecurity risks, impacting all internet users in the country, including any Cambodian business that has an online presence,” continued Paine.
“Ultimately, the Government’s decision to deny its citizens alternatives for a global internet connection will potentially depress innovation, dampen foreign investment, and significantly blunt the growth of Cambodia’s nascent digital economy,” he added.
Critics of the National Internet Gateway sub-decree have previously pointed to Thailand, where similar legislation was scrapped following grave concerns voiced by the private sector, but officials in Cambodia seem unwilling to acknowledge such criticism.
Official Attempts to Reassure Critics
Meas Po, spokesperson for the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, claimed that the sub-decree had been drafted following comprehensive studies and consultation with business associations in Cambodia.
“It does not affect either users’ or operators' benefits, there have been no concerns from businesses on that issue, but only from NGOs,” he said, admitting that he had not read the AIC’s letter addressed to Prime Minister Hun Sen, the Council of Ministers and Chea Vandeth, the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications.
The letter raised the risks posed by a National Internet Gateway, particularly in relation to internet access in the event that the gateway failed. With all traffic filtering through the gateway, Cambodians would effectively be cut off from the internet if the gateway went down, but similarly this would—the AIC advised—heighten the risk of malicious attacks.
Slower internet speeds would result from the introduction of the National Internet Gateway, the AIC wrote, adding that it would adversely affect businesses operating in the country and hinder the country's digital economy ambitions in the ASEAN region.
Referring to the sub-decree as “counter-intuitive,” the AIC warned it would lead to increased cybersecurity threats, lower internet connectivity among Cambodians, decreased competiveness among internet service providers, lower rates of digitalization among other sectors, as well as threats to human rights and privacy.
However, while not addressing these concerns, Po went on to say that the sub-decree won’t impact online operations or Cambodian users, but will instead urge internet service providers to improve their services and subsequently develop the nation’s digital economy.
“We’ve spent more than a year developing the sub-decree, we had many meetings about it,” he said.
When asked for specifics about the benefits the proposed National Internet Gateway would bring to Cambodia, Po said he didn’t have details to hand.
An Unwillingness to Speak Out
None of the internet service providers contacted responded to requests for comments on how the sub-decree will affect their business. Both Cellcard and Smart—two of the country’s largest telecoms companies—declined to comment on the National Internet Gateway and how would affect their businesses, their services or their customers.
Likewise, neither Kaspersky nor Fire Eye—leading international cybersecurity firms—were prepared to comment on the Cambodian government’s plan or how it would impact online freedoms, privacy and security.
One tech entrepreneur who requested to remain anonymous explained how the proposed National Internet Gateway would expose Cambodia to cyberattacks and jeopardize national cybersecurity.
“From what I understand the main issue is the fragility of having a single failure point—or a couple—which is not how the internet was designed,” they said. “Failure of the gateway might be physical; but more likely will come from hacks that exploit flaws in software and hardware that run the routers at those gateway points. There is a surprising frequency to new vulnerabilities and hacks of network equipment.”
The entrepreneur pointed to the recent hacking of at least six different US government agencies, numerous tech companies including Microsoft and a range of NGOs. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has since laid the blame for the hack at Russia’s feet—the Kremlin, in response, denied the allegations, but in the two weeks since the hack was discovered, investigators are still unclear what has been breached or what information has been stolen.
Whether Russian or otherwise, hackers were able to gain access to highly sensitive government databases, including the National Nuclear Security Administration’s network, by writing malicious code into an update for Orion—a popular software program used by numerous US government agencies.
“The new Russian hack of US agencies is a great example,” the entrepreneur explained. “The main tool for penetration was an infected piece of network monitoring software that everyone downloaded and installed, thinking it was just a normal update to long-trusted software.”
They added, “So I guess in the end the gateway is only as good as the team that is maintaining it.”
A Sub-Decree Aimed at Censorship
An important element worth noting in the proposed National Internet Gateway is that it is being drafted as a sub-decree. While this grants more flexibility to the government in repealing it should that prove necessary, it also—as Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson noted—allows for less scrutiny.
“I surmise that they wanted to keep this out of sight in order to avoid the kind of opposition that could come once Cambodian businesses and foreign investors realize what the government is doing, and recognize the negative impact that this will have on internet speeds and doing business online in the country,” said Robertson, who added that when human rights groups sound the alarm on such matters, the government regularly ignores them.
Robertson praised the AIC’s intervention and urged the Cambodian business community to look deeper into the negative impacts of the proposed sub-decree.
He added that the sub-decree will extend the government’s control over information, having already silenced or brought to heel much of Cambodia’s traditional media. The internet, he warned, is one of the last frontiers of free speech in Cambodia and the government is now aiming to apply additional controls here too.
Indeed, over the course of 2020, a number of people have been arrested for content posted to social media—more than 30 were arrested between January and April 2020 alone. From women accused of dressing “too sexily” to Cambodians associated with the opposition party, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ongoing crackdown on critics has seen a rise in the number of people charged with incitement, including journalists, monks, artists and activists.
Just today, on Dec. 22 two rappers, Kea Sokun and Long Putheara, were charged with incitement over the lyrics of songs posted to YouTube. On the same day, Sok Oudom—an outspoken radio station owner—was charged with incitement to commit a felony over his persistent reporting on land disputes. He now faces 20 months in prison, although he has been held in pre-trial detention since his arrest in May 2021.
While the government’s arsenal of tools for the suppression of free speech have already proven to be extensive, Robertson warned that the proposed National Internet Gateway will further add to the growing climate of fear and self-censorship that is eroding the online freedoms of Cambodians.
“The fundamental problem is the single internet gateway requires the operators of the gateway to store internet session information over time and send regular reports to the authorities,” warned Robertson, noting that Cambodia’s lack of data protection law opens the storage of data up to abuse.
“No one should forget the government’s long and continuous history of conducting surveillance against critics of the government, so it is quite likely this sub-decree would be used to open the doors for the authorities to identify users’ internet activities and habits, and could enable them to identify the users,” said Robertson.
“A single internet gateway will reinforce the government’s ability to arbitrarily and disproportionally block online content,” he added.”[It will] ultimately extend government control over the internet and subject independent voices – such as media outlets, the political opposition, and civil society groups – to politically motivated restrictions.”