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Cambodia's Great Internet Firewall?

The plan of the Cambodian government to have a state-run exchange point to control all local internet service providers in order to strengthen internet security against pornography, theft and cyber crime is finally underway. However, there seems to be no clear-cut policy on the extent to which Telecom Cambodia, a state-owned company granted with powers to control the internet exchange point, would be able to block access to individual websites.

According the the latest report by Phnom Penh Post, there have been mixed assertions on the authority of the TC. There is also a question whether Cambodia will follow its neighboring countries where internet censorship is being practiced. While the TC's deputy director reportedly claimed that the body can control internet sites, other ministers including the Minister of Information does not endorse this assumption.

If any Web site attacks the government, or any Web site displays inappropriate images such as pornography, or it’s against the principle of the government, we can block all of them. If TC plays the role of the exchange point, it will benefit Cambodian society because the government has trust in us, and we can control Internet consumption,” said Chin Daro, TC's deputy director.

In contrast to this claim, the Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith questioned the authority of TC and he echoes the position of the government:

“I don’t know what authority they’re saying that under […] although the government is capable of blocking access to Web sites, it has no intention of doing so, and that there are unresolved questions about whether censorship policies should be implemented […] Who should decide what should be filtered?” We have the technology, but we don’t think it’s appropriate to filter content.”

Regardless of this controversy, there have been attempts in the past to control the internet which mainly targeted artists. There have been crackdowns on websites which are critical against the government or those which revealed family information and business associations of the Prime Minister and his family members. Websites and blogs showing pornography or sexy images were also pulled down including reahu.net which were only accessible to internet users outside Cambodia.

With the current progress of the government plan to control the internet, facebook users promptly demonstrated their objection. Tauch Norin expressed his disagreement over the proposed internet censorship. For him, this approach is totally incompatible with a free market system and freedom of expression. Cambodia's move is following the model of China where it adopts a “Great Firewall.” In his status update where the story of State-run Web hub would filter sites is linked, Norin posted:

“Little brother always follows what his big brother”

“little brother refers to the Cambodian government, whereas big brother refers to China. Our government intends to put their control on internet ….it is the exercise for internet censorship which have been practiced in China,” elaborated Norin via e-mail interview.

Similarly, 28-year old blogher, Sidaroth Kong who had actively worked for more than 7 years with various NGO sectors that promote ICT projects for social development and gender mainstream, voices her concern over the government plan for web monopoly. In her facebook's status, she suggests:

“Government officials should not have a mindset of wanting to control over the sectors of their responsibility but to regulate a free and open environment for the real benefits of their people.”

Via chat interview, Kounila Keo, a prominent blogher whose blog covers various sociopolitical issues, voices her concern that the government's move will pose a threat to blogosphere.

Question: What is your opinion about the government's plan to have a state-run exchange point to control all local internet service providers?

Kounila: I really don't like the fact that one Cambodian official says that pornographic sites as well as sites critical of the government will be banned through the process. A few other officials interviewed by the Post try to hide this agenda. In fact, there seem to be two dimensions of this attempt. First, the government secretly want to make more money and second, it rises out of the national security interest.

Q: Have there been any discussion among bloggers?

Kounila: I've talked to a few bloggers about it..and many don't like them…

Q: What will be the impact on the local blogosphere?

Kounila: If this internet control were to be successful, it would pose a threat to the blogosphere…The reason is that the state-run company who could control the exchange point would have the power to censor content critical of the government or whatever shows critical comments or ideas from bloggers. Even though this idea hasn't been clearly voiced by the government, at least some hint (provided by one or two officials and even contradictory answers by two different officials) has caused uncertainty and fear among bloggers who like to express their opinions over governance, politics and social issues.

Q: Do you think Cambodia will follow the China model on internet control?

Kounila: I hope that Cambodia would not head its way like China…Cambodia needs a lot of development in every sector..and people's opinions should be really highly appreciated or valued. Criticism by bloggers or political commentators should be taken into consideration rather than condemned. We should look at it this way because both the government and the people involved all want Cambodia to move fast forward. This is the only way we can improve our country. But if the internet control were to be successful, I suspect Cambodia would fall into the domino effect that a few neighbouring countries have fallen to.

In early February, Detail are Sketchy rebutted the government's initiative to filter internet content under the claim of national value and morality.

“Details of the initiative are still sketchy. But like most efforts of the morality police, this one too seems destined to become a monument to bureaucratic folly. Considering the fact that prostitution is rampant throughout the country, efforts to censor short-shorts in cyberspace seems more than just a bit misguided. It’s a wonder they even bother trying.”

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