On February 16, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen signed a sub-decree on the establishment of a national internet gateway which would create a single point of entry for internet traffic regulated by a government-appointed operator. While the specifics of its implementation remain unclear, the move exacerbates ongoing concerns about internet freedom in the country and its effects on wider political dynamics, as the country heads closer to local and national elections expected in 2022 and 2023, respectively.
While the internet was initially seen by many as a liberating technology, in reality some governments have in recent years increased their efforts to suppress freedoms and curtail or manipulate online information. According to Freedom House’s annual Freedom on the Net index, last year saw the tenth consecutive year of overall deterioration in global internet freedom, including the limiting of access to information, the expansion of surveillance powers and deployment of new technologies, and the splintering of the internet as governments impose regulations that restrict the flow of information across national borders.
Cambodia has been among the countries where authoritarian regimes have engaged in such efforts. The Hun Sen government has put in place several mechanisms to regulate the use of technology in the country, including the 2015 Telecommunications Law which allows authorities to monitor any private speech and the 2018 Inter-Ministerial Proclamation on Website and Social Media Control, which mandates internet service providers to install surveillance software to monitor content. These mechanisms have been coupled with other actions as well, including the arrests of technology users, assaults against government critics, suppression of the media, and the government’s greater embrace of China and its potential regional implications.
Seen from this perspective, the establishment of a national internet gateway – akin to China’s toolkit of internet controls known as the Great Firewall – represents yet another move meant to cement the Cambodian government’s political control. The measure, first proposed via a National Internet Gateway (NIG) Sub-Decree last July and intended to create a single point of entry for internet traffic in the country under a government-appointed operator, would give the government unchecked power to block online content and undermine citizen internet access, which partly explains why it has provoked concerns among rights groups and companies alike.
To be sure, how exactly this move will evolve remains unclear. The 11-page decree signed by Hun Sen last week requires internet service providers to reroute their services through a NIG within the next 12 months or risk penalties, but it gave no indication of what the actual launch date would be. We also have not heard the government’s response to specific concerns that exist within Cambodia, including among NGOs, about how the NIG would be utilized thus far apart from denials of foul play and suggestions that there could be other efforts made to protect personal data to ease concerns on this front. Some previous moves mooted by the government – such as the cybercrime bill initially introduced in 2010, which had its third draft leaked last year –have gone through multiple iterations as they take shape.
Nonetheless, this as well as other efforts to control the Internet will be important to watch. As Cambodia moves closer to commune elections expected in 2022 and general elections in 2023, rights groups are already warning the Hun Sen government may attempt to use technology to stifle dissent, in order to cement its position and suppress what remains of the political opposition. And while the parallels to China might not be exact, speculation continues to be rife about advice and assistance Beijing is offering to some countries – including in Southeast Asia – with respect to digital controls. As events in other nearby countries, be it the fallout from the coup in Myanmar or Thailand’s continued democratic woes, may make up more of the headlines on mainland Southeast Asian developments, moves such as the NIG may be just as consequential to ascertain the future of Cambodia’s political trajectory and the subregion’s outlook more broadly.