A GOVERNMENT proposal to funnel all local Internet service providers through a state-run exchange point has prompted renewed concern in light of news this week that a morality committee plans to ramp up its monitoring of controversial Web sites.
The government has long wanted to transfer exchange-point operations from two private Internet exchange points (IXPs) to Telecom Cambodia, a state-run entity that operates as an Internet service provider (ISP). The Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications declined to give a date for the proposed transfer on Thursday, but Kim Gjemmestad, managing director of Finder IXP, one of the two private IXPs, said the ministry was pushing for the change to occur this year.
On Tuesday, Ros Sarakha, an undersecretary of state at the ministry, said the government’s National Committee for Up-holding Social Morality plans to hold bimonthly meetings with ISPs to review Web sites featuring racy images of Cambodian women deemed in conflict with national values.
Critics who argue that the meetings could be a pretense for government censorship said the IXP transfer would give the government too much control over what Internet users can view.
“It sounds very similar to what happens in China,” said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR). “The danger is that the Cambodian government is always looking to these models of control.”
Several industry insiders on Thursday pointed to a rumour that the proposed transfer had been prompted in part by a desire to combat terrorism, but Ou Virak said he did not believe that was the real reason.
“You don’t counter terrorism through controlling what happens online,” he said, adding that the establishment of a state-run IXP was more likely part of a broader effort to “control access to things people like us say – for example, anything critical of the government”.
Ou Virak said he was concerned by the type of monitoring described by Ros Sarakha, saying it amounted to “moral policing”. He added that a state-run IXP, through which all local ISPs would need to pass, could easily abuse its power.
“If they have the tool in their hands, they will misuse it,” he said.
Sieng Sithy, deputy director of the Directorate of Telecommunications Policies and Regulation at the Posts and Telecommunications Ministry, confirmed that the government is in the process of creating a single, state-run IXP, which he said would make it easier for the government to “control Internet security”.
“Internet security covers everything, including pornography, theft and cyber crime,” he said.
“If the headmaster blocks [a site], all [ISPs] also block it,” he said by way of explaining how the state-run IXP would work.
Move could cripple industry
Gjemmestad said he did not believe the switch to a state-run IXP was proposed with an eye towards censorship, adding that it was more likely financially motivated.
He said any effort to restrict access to certain Web sites could ultimately cost the government billions of dollars, and that it such a move would likely be futile because proxy servers could provide access to sites that other servers had blocked.
He added that, whatever the reason, the change could potentially cripple Cambodia’s fledgling IT industry because Telecom Cambodia plans to charge for a service that is currently being provided for free. Telecom Cambodia could not be reached for comment on Thursday.
Another industry insider, who did not want to be named, raised concerns a national dependence on Telecom Cambodia’s service, which he said has often lagged competitors.
“It hasn’t been very reliable in the past,” he said.
Sok Chanda, president and CEO of the ISP AngkorNet, agreed that having only one IXP in the country would cause many problems.
“First, the price might not be a bargain. Second, if that IXP is cut off, all of our [customers] are also cut off,” she said.
“[Telecom Cambodia] is a state-owned firm. They don’t work on Sunday, Saturday and holidays as well as nighttime. For example, if there is a problem at nighttime and they don’t solve it, all users who subscribe from us will not be able to use [the Internet].”