Cambodia steps up Internet surveillance
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Cambodia steps up Internet surveillance

This article was published on August 30th, 2012 and has been modified on September 29th, 2012. In the previous version, a quote was wrongly attributed to Mr. Klein that has been removed. In the context of this inter-ministerial regulation, Mr Klein thinks that “some people are dangerous” and that the Internet is also used for criminal actions.

As Burma loosens its grip  on the media, Cambodia has begun to rank high among the countries repressing internet and telephone freedom in the name of national security, safety and social order. It is still not comparable to China or Vietnam, but Cambodia is moving in the wrong direction.

Last February, the Kingdom of Wonders adopted an “inter-ministerial circular”, 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. According to an unofficial translation obtained by the Asian Correspondent, the circular is meant to “promote protection of national security, safety and social order for the country”. Even though nothing has been implemented thus far, the circular is a threat to every phone and Internet user in the country.

“This is not a law. The authorities simply decided to do whatever they want to regulate online content in the country only because it could violate khmer culture,” stated Norbert Klein, the “founding father” of the Internet in Cambodia and now the head of the Cambodia chapter of the Internet Society. To him,  the circular is a “means of intimidation for Internet users more than a means to protect their safety “.

In 1990, Norbert Klein connected Cambodia to tan email service at the back of what is today an always-full restaurant in the heart of Phnom Penh, where NGO workers and the expat population mix. At that time, he wanted to help one of his colleague to complete an online fellowship. With a Colombian email program and a Singaporian modem it took them weeks to get connected and finally read and receive emails. Moreover, since the connection was asking for stable and steady supply, the electricity was generated by a Vietnamese truck battery stationed outside the house. At that time, never  Klein would never have imagined that the Internet in Cambodia could deal with censorship. After all, the only censor they faced in 1990 was the price: $5 per minute of connection.

But then came human rights defenders like the Venerable Loun Sovath using online tools to advocate for a cause, scandals arose when the behaviors created by the Internet attempted to cult and religion and the  feared Jasmine Revolution started in neighbouring countries.  As of today, Cambodia has a bit more than 3% of its population online with one of the quickest rates of growth in the region since it is more than twice the number registered in 2011. These are some of the reasons behind the Internet crackdown, which is nothing but a simple agreement that the government can claim at any moment and that consulted no elected member.

According to the inter-Ministerial circular signed by the Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Post and Telecommunications, past experiences […] have shown that criminals and offenders always used telecommunications services such as mobile phones, fixed phones, VoIP and Internet as a means to commit terrorism, trans-boundary crimes, robberies, kidnapping, murders, drug trafficking, human trafficking, economic offenses, illegal installment of and illegal corporation of all forms of telecommunications service, broadcasting of obscene pictures and debauchery, which affect national customs, traditions and social good moral values.” For these reasons, all locations serving telephone and Internet services shall be equipped with closed circuit television camera and shall store footage data of users for at least 3 months. Telephone service corporation owners along public roads shall [also] record National Identity Cards of any subscriber”.

As of today, there are more than 19 million sim card holders in Cambodia. And it is still very difficult to get an ID card for Cambodian nationals. For the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, which organizes “good governance” forums in the country, the first obstacle to possess a national id card is the price. There is no fixed economic value to it and it can vary from $2.5 to $50.

According to the Ministry of Interior there are  9,27866 Cambodian holding ID cards.  What does this circular mean for the almost ten million Cambodians with sim cards but no ID ?

The will to control telecommunications is not new

This February circular is not the first attempt to control the use of telecommunications. However, it shows once again that the Ministry of Information is excluded from the decision and seems to be less relevant when it comes to regulation. In 2010, the same Ministry of Post and Telecommunications attempted to get the monopoly over the Internet cable industry in the country. There are about 30 internet service providers in the country and 10 phone operators, which causes a loss of profit to the state-owned services. To solve this, the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications attempted to direct all international internet traffic through Telecom Cambodia, which would have charged other operators a transmission fee. However this time, because the ministry of information went publicly against it, it had to be abandoned.

Moreover, it has only been five years since the use of the peer-to-peer software Skype has been authorized. Even if it was possible to connect to it, it was still illegal for the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications was loosing money. This sounds like a false argument since the people using Skype were the ones who could not afford a phone call. There was a Cambodian version of Skype but its lack of popularity among the high ranking society and its difficulty to be used made the government give it in.

For most of human rights defenders, Internet remains a free space where sensitive topics can be discussed. For Chak Sopheap, online activist and contributor to the network Global Voices online, Internet is a “digital democracy”, which should be put in place in reality, outside of a computer screen. Internet activists in Cambodia are being more effective to advocate for themselves and denounce human rights violations. For example, when Loun Sovath records them, he get a double answer; the international community takes an interest while the Cambodian authorities arrest him. According to Ou Virak, from the Cambodia Center for Human Rights (CCHR), “activists use more the Internet during protests for example. They can advocate for themselves online, especially through Facebook. Before the Internet became popular, media were the target of the government. Today, activists are”.

This circular is not only limited to online and mobile content and usage but also to radio stations since “any radio communication wave system corporation shall require permission from the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications”. The radio’s mission is mainly defined as a “public service”. Therefore, the decision maker should be an institution and not a private corporation. This could therefore apply to any independent media trying to set up as a private company to own airtime and a frequency.