It has been a month now since some Internet cafés were ordered to close throughout Cambodia. Representatives of civil society fear for the future of the Internet in Cambodia and the rise of online repression.

In a circular signed by the Minister of Telecommunications on November 16, 2012, Internet cafes located within 500 meters of a school have to close. As it was reported in the local media, the  minister said that “students can learn new technology as long as [it] is legal”. According to the decree, Internet cafes cannot allow their clients to gamble, porn surf, visit websites selling drugs or commit crimes that threaten national security or “traditions”.

In an English translation made available by the local Human Rights NGO Licadho, it is said that “many criminals have used telecommunication mean[s] to commit [...] offenses such as inter-border criminal, robbery, murder, extortion, illegal drug trafficking, human trafficking, economic crime, illegal running telecommunication service, pornography and other immoral act, which has affected our tradition and social morality.”

According to the organizations Reporters Without Borders and the Cambodian Center for Independent media, the text lacks definitions, which is a danger for online freedom of expression. The Cambodian Center for Human Rights also published a press release insisting on the fact that “instead  of  imposing  restrictions,  the  Cambodian  government  should  make  use  of emerging technologies to engage with the Cambodian people and allow more dialogue and discussion, rather than seeking to silence opinion and dissent.”

Is Facebook affecting tradition and “social morality”?

Last October, and for the first time in Cambodia, a 19-year-old girl was found murdered, apparently by a person she met on the social networking website Facebook. Does it make Facebook responsible for the murder ?

Larry Magid, a tech journalist and Internet safety advocate contributing to Forbes.com argues however that, “if [threats] weren’t made on Facebook they would probably have been made elsewhere — on the phone, in email, in a chat room, on Twitter or — even more likely — in school or another physical location. If this murder had been the result of an angry phone exchange in the UK, I don’t think the media would be calling it a ‘British Telecom Murder’.”

In order to show how restrictive this circular can be in Cambodia, the Urban Voice Focus Campaign “Save the Internet Cafés”  was launched last week to draw attention to the Government Circular. “Many internet cafés as well as cafés with wifi were mapped on Urban Voice already. Should the 500m prohibition radius around schools be implemented, the vast majority of internet cafés in Phnom Penh would have to close“, said Nora Lindstrom of Urban Voice in an email.

Second circular to regulate the Internet use this year

It is not the first time a worrying circular has been adopted. In February 2012, an inter-ministerial circular was adopted according to which every Internet cafe in the country has to set up surveillance cameras and any phone shop has to register callers using its services. The November circular is the second one adopted this year to regulate the Internet use.

Although this trend is worrying for human rights defenders and NGOs defending freedom of speech, nothing has been implemented on the ground yet. The November circular is however being drafted as business contracts with Internet cafés owners and warns that “[should an] internet café provider [not] follow this circulation, [the ministry], [in] cooperation with law enforcement institutions and relevant authorities will suppress and confiscate materials, and also arrest the internet café owner in accordance to law“.

As of today, a little more than 3% of Cambodians have access to the Internet in the country. According to the World Bank, this is the third-lowest score in the region. However, on a plus note, Internet usage more than doubled last year.