Rights group: Cambodia internet gateway will hurt privacy

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia plans to set up a new national internet gateway that critics fear will increase online surveillance and censorship of the internet and infringe on rights to privacy and free expression.

Like a number of Asian governments, Cambodia has been cracking down on online dissent.

Long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen signed an order Wednesday to set up such an internet gateway. According to a copy of the measure seen Thursday, he said it would help with tax collecting, protect national security and ensure social order.

The new regulation enables the authorities to control all internet traffic in Cambodia through a regulatory body charged with monitoring online activity. The measure would would allow for “blocking and disconnecting (of) all network connections that affect safety, national revenue, social order, dignity, culture, tradition and customs," it said.

The New York-based group Human Rights Watch said Hun Sen's order had “struck a dangerous blow against internet freedom and e-commerce" in Cambodia by expanding the government’s control over the country’s internet.

It called on foreign governments, tech companies, e-commerce businesses, and others to urge the government to not carry out the measure.

“Cambodia’s National Internet Gateway is the missing tool in the government’s toolbox for online repression,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“It’s no coincidence that after shutting down critical media across the country, the Hun Sen government has now turned its attention to online critics, just in time for the nationally organized commune elections due in 2022,” Robertson said.

According to government statistics, internet subscriptions in Cambodia soared to 20.3 million in 2020 from 5 million in 2014. Facebook is the most popular social media platform in the country, with more than 10 million users.

Hun Sen launched a sweeping crackdown on his opponents in 2017. The High Court has forced the country's only credible opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, to disband and its lawmakers were ousted from Parliament. Many people believe the court acted to ensure that Hun Sen’s Cambodia People’s Party would prevail in a 2018 general election. It did, taking all the seats in Parliament.

Hun Sen has been in power for 36 years and has often been accused of heading an authoritarian regime. Several Western nations have imposed sanctions on his government, mainly after concluding that the 2018 election was neither free nor fair.