Published 18 February 2021 at Thomson Reuters Foundation, here.
On Wednesday, the Cambodian government enacted a decree establishing a national internet gateway, paving the way for the creation of a China-style Great Firewall. Implementing a centralized censorship and surveillance infrastructure of this scale allows Prime Minister Hun Sen to tighten the noose on what remains of internet freedom in Cambodia. The decree should be repealed.
Under the decree, all internet traffic will be routed through a single portal, the National Internet Gateway (NIG). On paper, NIG operators will enforce government orders to block or disconnect any network activities deemed a risk to national security, social order, culture, and other vaguely defined ills. Broadly speaking, the NIG will be used to throttle any network activity at the government’s will. Although the decree establishes a complaints procedure, there are serious questions about oversight and the right to remedy in light of the lack of judicial independence in Cambodia.
The decree is set to take effect in early 2022. The timing is noteworthy as Cambodia will hold commune elections next year, with national elections to follow in 2023. Once functioning, the NIG will make it much easier for the government to block the websites of independent news media and civil society, as it did to at least 17 websites ahead of the 2018 national election.
The NIG poses a fundamental threat to the rights of freedom of expression and information, and to privacy.
Under international human rights law, these rights may only be restricted under extremely narrow and strictly defined circumstances. They must be prescribed by law with sufficient precision – vague restrictions such as those listed in the decree are impermissible. Additionally, they must be in pursuit of a legitimate aim, and necessary and proportionate to that aim. Some aims listed in the decree, including protecting “dignity” and “culture”, are not legitimate grounds on which these rights can be restricted.
The Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information likewise states that restrictions on the grounds of national security are illegitimate if they are a pretext for protecting the government or concealing information about the government. Hun Sen’s track record raises concern that the NIG will be abused to censor criticism or block access to sensitive information.
In addition to the threats of broad censorship, the decree will likely facilitate arbitrary and abusive internet surveillance by government officials. The decree requires NIG operators to collect, retain and share an undefined and near-unlimited array of personal data belonging to every web user in Cambodia. The centralized storage of such information creates serious vulnerabilities for data security and privacy, that should likewise be a serious concern for foreign firms and chambers of commerce operating in Cambodia.
The blanket authority of government appointed NIG operators to control internet traffic fails to comply with international norms and suggests that Cambodia is emulating China’s abusive model of “internet sovereignty.”
As such, the decree is not only a disaster for internet freedom in Cambodia, but also risks the further normalization of a dangerous approach to Internet governance.
China has, for at least a decade, promoted the idea of internet sovereignty, which suggests that countries should maintain full control over the internet ecosystem within their territory. Of course, sovereign nations have the right to enact their own policies, but laws and state actions must also adhere to international human rights obligations.
In authoritarian countries, internet sovereignty has often been used as cover to control the flow of information and enact data localization laws that threaten privacy rights.
What’s more, the denial of rights online often goes hand in hand with the denial of rights in real life.
Having perfected its totalitarian control of the internet, China has been campaigning for its model of internet governance to become the international norm. Russia, Iran, Turkey, and others have used notions of internet sovereignty to excuse the passage of domestic laws that severely curtail digital rights. Such laws and policies have enabled the blockage of websites deemed critical of the government and the denial of mobile applications or server access needed to download VPNs or other tools.
This approach to internet governance risks carving the web into a series of splinternets, with governments using their sovereign control over internet access to deny the fundamental rights of their citizens. Should the global consensus shift in favor of China’s model, we risk seeing the internet further transformed from its potential as a global platform for free expression into geographically varied digital rights-free zones.
Cambodia should at once reverse course on the National Internet Gateway and instead uphold its obligations under international law by opposing the normalization of China’s repressive model of internet sovereignty.