BANGKOK (THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION) - Sovann Chhay was 16 when he was arrested in Cambodia's capital last year for writing comments on the Telegram messaging app that were deemed insulting to government officials. The autistic teenager was jailed for nearly six months.
He was among at least 35 people arrested over their online activity in Cambodia last year, according to the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR), which expects the numbers to surge after the launch of a new China-style Internet gateway.
All Internet traffic in Cambodia will be routed through the government-run National Internet Gateway, allowing authorities to monitor online activity, intercept and censor digital communications, and collect users' personal data.
The gateway had been due to launch on Wednesday (Feb 16), but on the eve of the planned roll-out a Telecommunications Ministry spokesman told reporters it had been delayed due to disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. He did not give a new timeline.
Critics say that when implemented, the gateway will further undermine privacy and hamper the activities of human rights defenders as the government faces international criticism over a crackdown that has decimated civil society and the opposition.
"It threatens to curtail free speech, access to information, and privacy rights in Cambodia, and gives the government unprecedented authority to monitor and control all Internet traffic in the country," said Naly Pilorge, deputy director of LICADHO, a human rights organisation.
"It will become another tool in the authorities' arsenal to suppress free speech on the Internet. There is no oversight or review for the actions, allowing for arbitrary censorship of the Internet," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
A government spokesman did not respond to requests for comment, but authorities have said previously that the gateway is essential for "peace and security" in the country, and have dismissed concerns about censorship.
From Cambodia to Indonesia and India, countries in Asia have introduced a slew of Internet and data-use legislation in recent years that human rights groups have said raises the risk of mass surveillance and free-speech violations.
Critics of Cambodia's Internet gateway, which is similar to the one deployed by its close economic ally China, fear it will be used by longtime leader Hun Sen to curb dissent ahead of commune elections this year, and national elections due in 2023.
The decree on the new Internet gateway requires all service providers to register users with their correct identities. It will also allow authorities to arbitrarily switch off Internet access, or block certain websites or domains.
State regulators will have the power to "prevent and disconnect all network connections that affect national income, security, social order, morality, culture, traditions and customs," according to the decree.
With such a broad mandate, the gateway will facilitate "mass surveillance", said Sopheap Chak, executive director of CCHR, a non-profit.
"The timing of its establishment is particularly concerning as elections are approaching," she said.
"There is a real risk that it will be used to block and censure dissenting opinions online, hindering Cambodian citizens' ability to make an informed choice," she added.
A draft cybercrime law unveiled in 2020 had already raised concerns about the increased surveillance of Internet users, and curbing privacy and free speech online.
The proposed legislation, which authorities said at the time aimed to "protect security and public order", stipulates jail sentences for statements with an "adverse effect" on national security or public health, safety, finances and officials.
Well before the draft cybercrime law or the national Internet gateway, activists and rights groups in Cambodia were using coded language and encrypted apps to communicate on online messaging platforms to escape government surveillance.
Still, at least 24 people were arrested for their online activity between April and December 2020, according to data compiled by CCHR.
CCHR "has always had to be cautious about its communications, and only uses secure communication channels", said Sopheap Chak, adding that they will "try to ensure their communications are protected" even with the new gateway.
For activists, the gateway is yet another hurdle to overcome, said Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, founder of Mother Nature Cambodia, an environmental rights group whose members have been arrested repeatedly for their exposes.
"The level of care will have to increase, for instance when using devices and communications methods that are known to be at risk of state-infiltration," said Gonzalez-Davidson, who was deported from the country in 2015 for his activism.
"We are constantly adapting to the changing status quo, and constantly learning new techniques on how to stay safe. The more careful one has to be, the more energy is drained away from activities aimed at opposing the regime," he added.
Among those targeted for their online activity in Cambodia recently are two young rappers, a Buddhist monk, human rights and environmental activists, journalists and others for posts critical of the government, as well as jokes, poems and songs.
The National Internet Gateway could have a chilling effect on Cambodia's youth and other Internet users in the country of 16 million people, said Naly Pilorge at LICADHO.
"Regardless of what steps can be taken by tech-savvy groups or activists, there will be millions of Cambodians who just want to exercise their rights to free expression online," she said.
"They will now be stymied by this new, authoritarian Internet infrastructure." When he was freed last year, Sovann Chhay vowed to continue to fight for the release of his father, a member of an opposition party imprisoned for anti-government dissent.
Sovann Chhay's mother, Prum Chantha, who belongs to the Friday Wives group that holds protests demanding the release of their jailed husbands, fears her son will be at greater risk of arrest when the new gateway is implemented.
"I've told him he needs to be more careful with what he says online, but I don't think he fully understands," she said.
"I have to check on him more - but I can't watch over him all the time like the government can."