IT goes without saying that increasing government efforts to block internet access to certain websites represent a serious affront on freedom of speech in Cambodia.
From a business perspective, the move marks the latest blow for a beleaguered telecommunications and internet industry which in recent years has suffered repeatedly from incompetence and ill-advised state intrusion.
Failure by the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications to mediate on pricing and connectivity in the mobile phone sector left companies in a state of confusion in 2009, sapping confidence in the government’s ability to regulate.
Then last year a number of internet service providers revealed they had stalled plans to roll-out WiMax internet after the government issued multiple licences on the same bandwidth, thereby threatening millions of dollars worth of investments while slowing down the expansion of internet connectivity in Cambodia.
In recent weeks some of the same companies have faced a difficult choice on censorship that creates an altogether new set of problems for ISPs.
They must decide between restricting customer access to a list of websites detailed by the government – thereby undermining their own services – or face the very real danger of unspecified retribution.
Although the Telecommunications Minister So Khun has said that the government has no policy to censor websites, ISPs received an email from MPTC leaked to The Post this week stating “cooperation [over blocking websites] is your own responsibility”.
Companies would interpret it in the way in which it was likely intended, in that companies that fail to abide by the new, unspecified rules could face negative repercussions.
The government’s low tolerance for criticism means foreign investors in technology will likely ask themselves yet again: ‘Is Cambodia worth it?’
If you offer too many mobile licences, sell off overlapping licences for bandwidth and then decide to meddle in ISP content, the net result is an investment climate of uncertainty.
Cambodia cannot follow the same road to online censorship as China if it wishes to develop the technology industry.
Google only stayed in China because it realised the world’s most populous nation was too good a market opportunity to ignore, while Beijing knew it could live without the US search engine company because the likes of Chinese firm Baidu.com were already supplying capital and expertise.
Neither scenario is true in Cambodia even if it remains to be seen whether technology firms here have the moral backbone Google claims to have. . If the government does not stop undermining technology investments then foreign firms may simply walk away – losing a tiny market like Cambodia where incomes remain low is not like losing China.
At the same time the government must realise its leverage in forcing firms to censor is inferior to that in China’s case given IT expertise and capital to develop a flourishing technology sector is lacking here.
In Cambodia’s case, allowing companies to do the right thing will therefore not only result in human rights benefits. There are economic rewards too.