Cambodia is set to establish a National Internet Gateway (NIG) to direct and facilitate all of the nation’s local and international internet traffic.
According to the Phnom Penh Post, Prime Minister Hun Sen signed a sub-decree on 16th February outlining the gateway’s proposed role in routing internet traffic, enabling “effective and efficient” revenue collection and management, and safeguarding national security and social order.
The NIG will incorporate and oversee both the Domestic Internet Exchange (DIX) and the International Internet Gateway (IIG). TeleGeography reports that these will be situated in Phnom Penh, Sihanoukville, Poipet, Bavet and other locations based on demand, subject to approval from the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications Cambodia (MPTC).
The government has not appointed an operator for the NIG, with interested parties invited to apply to for a licence from the Telecommunication Regulator of Cambodia (TRC).
According to the authorities, the operator must “manage and facilitate connections and the use of infrastructure, network and internet services at all instances of the NIG, as well as terrestrial cross-border network infrastructure. It will have to install and configure the routers, switches and other network equipment to ensure the quality and security of network connections or peering facilities for NIG and operators of international gateways.”
It must also “take immediate action to block or disconnect any network connection that affects national revenue, security [or] social order” in collaboration with the country’s authorities including the MPTC and TRC.
Cambodia’s move to set up a NIG was first proposed in July 2020, but came under fire from the Asia Internet Coalition (AIC), which claimed that gateway could be used to restrict internet access for civilians, posing a threat to businesses and internet platforms as well as freedom of expression and user privacy.
The AIC argued that the NIG could lead to greater media censorship and reduced internet speeds as well as cybersecurity risks. Indeed, Asia-focused outlet The Diplomat notes that the government’s security concerns can be read as “code for restricting dissenting political voices, particularly those of long-time opponents.”
ISPs will be required to register users accurately on pain of having their operating licences suspended, allowing the government to monitor what citizens post and share online. Additionally, the NIG would allow the government to shut down internet access at will during social unrest, such as large-scale protests.
The Diplomat’s Sebastian Strangio writes: “The proposed internet gateway bears a close resemblance to the internet controls in China, which has become a close partner of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his government, as the latter’s relationship with Western governments has deteriorated due to its harsh crackdown on the opposition.”
The Cambodian government’s actions can certainly be seen as in step with similar authoritarian internet control within Southeast Asia. Myanmar’s military recently blocked access to the internet and social media in response to protests after it seized power from Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy in a coup after the party won an election victory with more than 80% of the vote.
In 2013, Cambodia experienced a political upset of its own after widespread social media activity – particularly through mobile internet and Facebook – resulted in the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) gaining significant ground against the incumbent CPP, which has been in power for over 30 years.
The CPP has since manoeuvered to restrict and eventually destroy its opposition, culminating in the abolition of the CNRP in 2017 following a ruling by a CPP-controlled court. Most of the CNRP’s leaders have been exiled while the government has continued to restrict the freedom of Cambodia’s press.
This included legislation on telecommunications passed in 2015 which obliged ISPs to surrender user traffic data to the government upon request. Online posts from both opposition politicians and civilians deemed critical of the government have resulted in penalties.
Speaking to Reuters, the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights Chak Sopheap said: “The last few years have seen a sharp increase in the number of citizens being threatened, harassed and even prosecuted for their use of the internet and for exercising their right to free speech.”