Full-time internet surveillance comes to Cambodia this week

Locals fear sharing their views on new National Internet Gateway

Cambodia’s National Internet Gateway comes online this Wednesday, exposing all traffic within the country to pervasive government surveillance.

As The Register reported when the Gateway was announced in January 2021, Cambodia's regime will require all internet service providers and carriers to route their traffic through the Gateway. Revocation of operating licences or frozen bank accounts are among penalties for non-compliance.

All incoming traffic to Cambodia will also be required to pass through the Gateway and be subject to censorship.

Human Rights Watch's analysis of the Gateway suggests it will "allow the government to monitor all internet activities and grant the authorities broad powers to block and disconnect internet connections."

Jeff Paine, managing director of the Asia Internet Coalition, Big Tech's regional lobby group, said the Gateway "will restrict Cambodians' ability to access a free and open internet and greatly harm the country's nascent digital economy."

Cambodia's military-run regime – which is notionally democratic but holds all 125 lower house seats after banning opposition parties – justifies the introduction of the Gateway on grounds it will help to maintain social order and improve national security.

The Register sought out tech businesses in Cambodia to comment on the imminent arrival of the Gateway. Two told us that the topic is too sensitive to discuss in public – even if The Register did not identify them by name.

Someone who would speak about the Gateway is Doctor Sophal Ear, an associate dean for undergraduate programs and global development at Arizona State University's Thunderbird School of Global Management, where he lectures on global political economy, international organizations, and regional management in Asia. He moved to the US from France as a Cambodian refugee at the age of ten.

Dr Ear said the Gateway will worsen a situation that already sees Cambodian authorities arrest critics of the nation's government.

"Recently, several people commenting on Facebook live scene of firetrucks taking a very long time to put out a fire (a regular occurrence in Cambodia because of corruption), were forced to make public apologies," he told The Register. Things will now get worse, he believes, in part because Cambodia accounts for half of voice calls on Facebook Messenger.

"The Gateway will cause everything to be revealed to the authorities. The ability to speak freely online in Cambodia is on life support. With the Gateway in place, it will be the last nail in the coffin of Cambodian freedom of expression online, on social media and using voice services."

It's not just individuals who have reason to fear. Dr Ear believes details of commercial transactions could be surveilled, then revealed to friends of the government.

The possibility of such surveillance will deter those building, or considering an engagement with, Cambodia's small but vigorous IT services sector.

"Who wants to be innovative in a Chinese-style environment?" Dr Ear asked.

As it happens, Cambodia's government does. Local media reports the recent debut of a policy to implement digital government services as part of a modernization drive that reduces dependence on physical service delivery.

The Register has a small but loyal readership in Cambodia. We hope we can say the same on Thursday, after the Gateway becomes compulsory. ®

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