Internet cafes are seen as information hubs in most countries, but in Cambodia the government seems terrorized by their presence. Last February, the government mandated internet cafe owners to set up surveillance cameras in their shops and register the names of all customers as a “crime deterrence measure.” Then it issued a new circular last month banning internet cafes within 500 meters of schools or educational buildings. The circular also prohibits internet cafes from extending their services to minors allegedly to protect them from cyberbullies and cybercriminals.
The Ministry of Post and Telecommunications justified the new order by reminding the public, especially parents, that criminals use “telecommunication means to commit offenses such as robbery, murder, extortion, illegal drug trafficking, human trafficking, pornography and other immoral acts, which have affected (Cambodian) tradition and social morality.” It also cited the youth’s rising addiction to several internet-based games.
The ministry warned that internet cafes located in the forbidden zones would be closed and their equipment confiscated. Shop owners would also face arrest and prosecution. The penalty could be higher if a cybercrime was committed in the cafe.
The new circular was immediately condemned as an anti-business measure since its strict implementation would force almost all internet cafes in the center of the capitol city, Phnom Penh, to close. Furthermore, small shop owners are worried about the threat of closure and arrest even if they didn’t directly commit petty cybercrimes in their establishments.
Travel writer Faine Greenwood predicts that the new decree “could easily be used as a rationale for unscrupulous sorts in the government to collect hefty bribes from owners if they want to continue operating.”
For human rights group Licadho, the new regulation is “a transparent attempt [by the government] to block part of the population’s access to independent sources of information through news sites and social media.”
“In a country where traditional media such as TV and radio stations are for the most part in the hands of the ruling party, the ability to access independent and critical voices through the internet is crucial,” it added.
This year’s laws are not the Cambodian government’s first attempts at imposing political-driven web regulations under the guise of protecting public morality. In 2008, it ordered the closure of an artist’s website for depicting bare-breasted Apsara dancers. In 2011, it asked local Internet Service Providers to block several “harmful” opposition websites. Even Blogspot was temporarily banned because it hosted several websites that were critical of the government.
It’s convenient for the government to raise the specter of cybercrimes to justify unreasonable and unnecessary regulations that could seriously harm local businesses and freedom of speech. Indeed, internet gaming addiction is a social problem but the solution is not to stop young people from having access to the internet but to teach them the value of moderation and responsible online behavior. Perhaps the government should focus more on how to improve computer access in rural areas, expand internet penetration, and enhance digital literacy among its citizens instead of outright banning internet cafes which alternately serve as virtual knowledge centers.