Cambodia is cracking down on internet, mobile phone usage

By Alexandra Demetrianova

THERE have been conflicting views and opinions about the Cambodian government’s recent implementation of new cyber security measures, which puts internet and cell-phone users and sales under stricter control. The directive from police and the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications will see a crackdown on all retailers of SIM cards and internet service providers who don’t register customers through identification documents before selling them their products. If they fail, they will face arrest. Telecom firms also have to register their existing subscribers with ID documents within three months, or their mobile phone numbers and internet packages will be terminated. The mandatory registration of SIM cards and internet service has been in existence since 2012, but has never been enforced.

According to the Cambodian government nearly 70 percent of the 20 million SIM cards in the country have no identification. Under the new regulation up to 14 million mobile phones will be switched off if not registered under proper identification.

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“Telecom operators must tell customers, including foreigners, that they must complete ID documents within three months or their numbers will be automatically deleted,” said National Police deputy chief Chhay Sinarith. He also stressed that the mandatory registration is aimed at terrorists, drug traffickers, kidnappers, extortionists and other criminals who buy SIM cards anonymously. “We have seen terrorists detonate bombs in hotels using mobile devices. When we investigated a bomb that went off in front of the office of the Council of Ministers, we found the perpetrators had used 120 mobile numbers of which 101 had no ID attached to them, whilst another 10 used fake IDs,” said Mr. Sinarith.

So far it seems that mobile operators will comply. At least that’s the position of the major provider companies, who see no potential impact on their sales. “We will work together with the industry and regulatory bodies to ensure that the directive is being complied to,” CEO of Smart Axiata Thomas Hundt told The Phnom Penh Post. Smart, one of the most popular providers in Cambodia, reported around 6.6 million subscribers as of March.

Mobile Operator qb welcomed the enforcement of mandatory registration. “It should promote the responsible sale and distribution of SIM cards by mobile operators and their reseller partners, which qb has always strived to do,” CEO Alan Sinfield told the Post. He added that this would bring Cambodia’s telecom sector in line with international standards. But most mobile operators agree that while registration of SIM cards has been their policy by law since 2012, it is difficult to enforce it, as SIM card small dealers can’t keep up with such registration demands. They hand out thousands of SIMs every day. Also, telecom companies who hand out free SIM cards as a way of promotion will need to review the practice.

Civil rights concerns

While private sector doesn’t feel affected by the new regulation just yet, civil society has been on alert since the crackdown was announced. Rights groups talk about another clear attempt by the government to curtail civil liberties. “The motivation is to control people using mobile and internet services,” said Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. “In light of the recent arrests of ordinary people and opposition figures for Facebook posts, this apparently innocuous regulation can be seen as a real threat to freedom of expression in Cambodia.” Critics also suggest that most Cambodians have no knowledge of this regulation being in place since 2012, nor about the recent crackdown, and the time given to comply – three months – is very short. Therefore many will lose their SIM cards and mobile services.

The speed with which the new measures been announced and enforced is also notable. The crackdown was announced just a week after a new Anti-Cyber Crime Department was launched in Cambodia. Deputy National Police chief Chhay Sinarith then held a press conference to notify the public “there was no capacity to fight cybercrime” – even with all the new measures? Critics fear there are more controls of online activity to come. Police and the new Anti-Cybercrime Department cited an evaluation by UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) that some ASEAN member countries lack capacity to fight cybercrime – including Cambodia. According to Mr. Sinarith the Kingdom lacks money and expertise. Immediately he blamed part of the problem on SIM cards being sold without registration, saying there are difficulties with “most of crimes related to technology, sometimes the authorities invite suspects for interrogation, but there is no charge made.” According to Phnom Penh’s Anti-Cybercrime Office, only a tenth of cybercrime is tackled in Cambodia. But the Cambodian Center for Human Rights remains alert. Its lawyers are convinced that it needs to be clear what exactly constitutes cybercrime and for that the country needs an independent body. Otherwise government’s anti-cybercrime policies might be abused.

Critics and the tech community have been warning of an “online clampdown” since last year. In April, exerpts from a new cyber-law being prepared by the government leaked to the public through Cambodian Center for Human Rights. Cambodians got a taste of how cyber security will be articulated and enforced. The law-in-preparation, as it’s never been made official, includes provisions such as – prohibition of online publication of information that is considered inciting, or discriminatory of race, sex and age, or that is defamatory; prohibition of misinformation that results in public disorder or instability. Violators can get up to 3 years in prison and fines of up to US$1,500.

In Cambodia, where the internet provides an outlet for pro-democracy activists and free speech, and where it is used to organise protests and support for civil society causes, the proposed  cyber-law could well be the government’s latest measure to stifle criticism. The Cambodian Center for Human Rights told VOA Khmer last year after the leak: “If the law is adopted with the current format, it is very dangerous for human rights activists and the public to raise opinions critical of the government.” There have been similar provisions in Cambodian legislature in recent years, which allowed authorities to silence government criticism. Journalists and activists have been jailed based on defamation and misinformation charges, as vague interpretations of such provisions have been used against dissent.

The internet and social media have also become tools to source and disseminate information on corruption, deforestation, land-grabbing and bad governance. These topics tend to be self-censored in traditional media, as they are sensitive and controversial. For now the secret draft cyber-law from last year, in which civil society had no say, is pending. But it’s clear that in Cambodia, whoever controls the internet will control the future.

About the author:

Alexandra Demetrianova is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok covering politics, society and life in Southeast Asia. She specializes in human rights, environment and development. Originally from Slovakia, she is currently finishing a Masters degree in International Relations at the Faculty of Political Science at Thammasat University.