Cambodia is delaying an internet gateway that had raised concerns around privacy and free speech, halting its planned mid-week implementation due to Covid-19 related disruptions, a government official said Tuesday.
Activists and UN rights experts had called for a halt to the project, which will funnel all web traffic through a state-controlled entry point, saying it would have a “devastating” effect on freedom of expression and privacy.
“The implementation of (National Internet Gateway) will be postponed due to the disruption caused by the spreading of Covid-19,” So Visothy, secretary of state for the Telecommunications Ministry told AFP.
“We will keep you updated when we have the new date,” he said, but declined to comment on if part of the system was already in operation.
The gateway, due to come into effect February 16, appeared to be taking Cambodia down a path beaten by Phnom Pehn’s major economic partner China — which keeps the online world behind a “Great Firewall” and blocks major Western platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
Earlier on Tuesday, the Cambodian Foreign Affairs Department issued a statement attacking foreign media reporting critical of the scheme.
A spokesman insisted it was being set up in a “transparent manner” and that consultations had been held with experts and relevant institutions.
“The establishment of a national internet gateway… serves as an effective tool to enhance national revenue collection,” the spokesman said, adding it would also help thwart cyber crimes, illicit online gambling and internet scams.
“The government respects the individuals rights to privacy and freedom of expression and protects personal data,” the spokesman said.
They said allegations that Cambodian authorities would monitor and conduct surveillance of internet activity, intercept and censor digital communication, and collect personal data were “unfounded”.
In 2021, at least 39 Cambodians were arrested, jailed or had arrest warrants issued against them for online posts that fell foul of government censors, according to the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR).
The gateway, announced last year, comes ahead of expected elections in 2023 and the CCHR said its completion could allow the government to block dissenting views online in the run-up to polls.
Reporters Without Borders denounced the scheme as “a level of information control unseen since the Khmer Rouge dictatorship”.
UN human rights experts warned earlier this month the gateway could pose a serious negative impact on internet freedom, human rights defenders and civil society in the country, further shrinking the already-restrictive civic space in Cambodia.
“Once the genie is out of the bottle it is very hard to be contained again,” UN experts said in a statement.
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