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Ministers differ on Internet controls

SENIOR ministers on Thursday were in apparent disagreement over the extent to which the state-owned company Telecom Cambodia would be able to block access to individual Web sites if it were granted control of the country’s Internet exchange – a move both company and government officials are reportedly looking to implement as soon as possible.

An official from the company on Tuesday said it would seek to block access to Web sites deemed inappropriate for a range of reasons, a statement that drew fresh outcry from representatives of the private telecommunications sector, one of whom said it could be “very dangerous” for the government to filter online content.

However, Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith on Thursday said the government had not told Telecom Cambodia that it could play a role in blocking Web sites.

“I don’t know what authority they’re saying that under,” he said in reference to the Telecom Cambodia official’s comments.

“The government doesn’t have any policy on that.”

Under the centralisation plan, all Internet service providers (ISPs) would be funneled through exchange points run by TC, which has indicated it will charge for the service. Currently, two domestic Internet exchange points are run by private companies free of charge.

Khieu Kanharith added that although the government is capable of blocking access to Web sites, it has no intention of doing so, and that there are unresolved questions about whether censorship policies should be implemented.

“Who should decide what should be filtered?” he said. “We have the technology, but we don’t think it’s appropriate” to filter content.

However, Minister of Posts and Telecommunications So Khun said Thursday that the practice of monitoring and blocking online content would be entirely consistent with TC’s role in supporting the work of his ministry.

Referring to “inappropriate” Web sites, he said, “After we inform those Web site owners and they still don’t close their Web sites, we will tell TC, which [will have] the right to block Web sites,” he said.

A telecommunications industry representative who spoke on condition of anonymity said Thursday that the two officials’ contradictory statements could be taken as evidence that the MPTC was on the verge of overstepping its role, which is supposed to be that of a free market regulator. “The Ministry of Information is stating the law – only a judge has the authority to decide what can be censored, and they are upholding that,” he said.

So Khun did not fully endorse the statements made earlier this week by the TC’s deputy director, Chin Daro, who said the company would aim to block Web sites that featured pornographic content or material that is critical of the government.

“If any Web site attacks the government, or any Web site displays inappropriate images such as pornography, or it’s against the principle of the government, we can block all of them,” Chin Daro said. “If TC plays the role of the exchange point, it will benefit Cambodian society because the government has trust in us, and we can control Internet consumption.”

On Thursday, So Khun denied that TC would have the authority to block access to Web sites that were critical of the government, or that the government would want those Web sites blocked. “The government blocks only pornographic Web sites,” he said.

In any case, rights groups and private telecommunications sector representatives have expressed concern over the plan to funnel traffic through TC’s exchange point, with some painting it as a threat to freedom of information.

MPTC and TC officials have said that the proposal stems from national security interests and a desire to preserve cultural values, but some private sector representatives have countered that the government is attempting to mask an attempt to make money from Internet traffic.

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