A joint statement signed by 63 Cambodian civil society organisations (CSOs) released Friday requested the government immediately repeal the recent sub-decree on the Establishment of a National Internet Gateway, citing the potential for restrictions on internet users’ freedoms and privacy.
However, government spokesperson Phay Siphan said freedoms will not be restricted and that the main goal of the bill was to increase government revenue by forcing online vendors to register with the government and improve the quality of internet access in the country.
The joint letter from the CSOs read: “The enforcement of this sub-decree by government authorities will restrict the fundamental rights and freedoms of people, especially the freedom of expression, the right of access to information, the right to privacy and online democratic expression.”
It continued that the sub-decree would have an economic impact as well by reducing competitiveness in the country’s digital sector.
The statement read: “The NIG [National Internet Gateway] will hurt ISPs’ [internet service providers] ability to compete to provide fast internet speeds for all Cambodian people and will hurt the ability of ISPs to operate on a level playing field.”
Siphan disputed this assertion and said ISPs will still be able to function normally and compete with one another.
Article 14 of the sub-decree was brought into question in the joint statement because it said the sub-decree requires “operators” of the NIG to store information for 12 months and allow for the tracking of user data.
Nop Vy, the executive director of Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association (Camboja) – a journalist association and one of the 63 CSOs to sign the agreement – said his organisation’s biggest concern is the broad descriptions used in the wording of the sub-decree, especially concerning Articles 6 and 12.
Vy said these articles may authorise authorities to clamp down on people if they express views considered unsatisfactory to them.
He used Sok Udom – a journalist jailed last year for “incitement” in May last year – as an example of an activist who was arrested under broadly-defined terms.
At the time, Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith said: “Sok Udom, an owner of a radio station and online news, exaggerated information, incited people to violence, provoked racial discrimination, caused insecurity and chaos in the society.”
Udom was arrested in connection with a land dispute he spoke about on his radio station in Kampong Chhnang province.
Siphan responded that there will be no restrictions on freedom of speech and that any concerns regarding this issue can be cleared up by referring to the Criminal Code. The rules won’t change, he said, and if any legal problems arise in this context, every defendant is entitled to a lawyer free of charge.
He reiterated that the main point of the sub-decree was to increase revenue, as he said there were cases of digital businesses illegally selling goods without registering with the government and paying taxes.
The sub-decree, he said, will close that loophole. He noted that as society and businesses trend toward digital platforms, it’s created a need for cybersecurity.
Also on Friday, the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications issued a press release responding to “reactions from a number of news outlets and non-governmental organsiations who suggest that the Royal Government intends to collect data, wiretap consumers, restrict freedom of expression and pursue the Chinese model.”
It maintained that the aim of the sub-decree is to “increase the effectiveness of national revenue collection on the basis of fair and honest competition, and transparency between the state and operators, as well as to prevent illegal cross-border network connections, illegal online gambling, cyberthreats, pornography and online frauds”.
It added that the ministry “intends to draft the Personal Data Protection Law following the Cybersecurity Law which shall be adopted imminently”.