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Telecom law grants ‘police powers’

People talk on mobile phones in Phnom Penh’s Chamkarmon district
People talk on mobile phones in Phnom Penh’s Chamkarmon district. A new draft law would force telecommunication companies to provide data, systems and equipment to the government in the ‘interest of national security’. Pha Lina

Telecom law grants ‘police powers’

Private-sector representatives today are to conclude a two-day consultation forum with the government over the controversial new draft telecommunications law.

The Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications’ (MPT) yet-to-be-approved draft law includes provisions that grant the ministry judicial powers to indict telecom service-related operators and even everyday users of communications devices over breaches of the proposed laws, according to an unofficially translated version of the confidential document.

“The officials of the MPT and the [Telecommunication Regulator of Cambodia] have a legal status as judicial police officers with a function as specified in the Code of Criminal Procedures on the function of judicial police,” the draft law states.

Telecom firms will face hefty consequences if found to have breached any of the laws set out, including selling services to customers without proper ID, refusing to provide financial documents to the MPT or making telecom-network changes without government consent.

Anyone found to have damaged telecom networks or infrastructure, even accidentally, or to have made threats, conspired to commit a crime or threatened public order via telecommunications devices, will also be in the MPT’s firing line, according to the draft.

Penalties, as stated by the MPT, range from $2,400 to as much as $1.2 million, carry between six months and 15 years in prison and, in severe cases, can lead to people being prohibited from living in Cambodia for up to 10 years.

Sorn Ramana, coordinator of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights’ freedom of expression and Sithi projects, said the proposed laws for people found to be using telecom means to make threats or conspire to commit a crime were overly punitive.

“The prison sentences provided for in these two articles are very harsh and disproportionate to the crimes,” she said.

“The way they are worded also leaves too much room for interpretation and could be used to restrict freedom of expression.”

But the law’s harsh penalties are not all that have telecom firms concerned.

“If this law passes, it will surely stifle the industry. It allows the government to change what they want when they want,” an industry representative who wished to remain anonymous said, citing numerous clauses in the law allowing the MPT to make changes at its own discretion.

“I don’t think existing providers will go as far as to withdraw their services, but it could significantly deter new investment in the country,” the person said.

According to the draft, the MPT and the Telecommunications Regulator of Cambodia (TRC) will have authority to order telecom service-related providers to hand over data, systems and equipment in the interest of “national security, stability and public order”.

Government officials can additionally demand any financial or nonfinancial documents from organisations including but not limited to mobile operators, infrastructure providers, equipment importers, internet cafes and even TV repairers.

And while the law commands all telecom service-related firms to reapply for new frequencies and licences, the government has reserved its right to define additional conditions, modify or even revoke said new licences, according to the draft law, which is yet to go before the Council of Ministers for approval.

The MPT has also set provisions to issue compulsory standards and formulas for calculating the cost of interconnection and customer service fees and discounts.

“[The] MPT shall have the competence to manage, inspect and follow up telecommunication service fee to ensure legal and honest competition,” the law states.

Roy Vivek, Asia-Pacific telecommunications industry analyst for global research firm, Ovum, said that while constructive policy often helps to protect existing investments, harsh regulation can do the opposite.

“Evidently, the telecom industry will require cash flow to support capital expenditures. Strict laws discouraging new investments will affect service quality and technology levels, and reduce market attractiveness,” Vivek said.

Also under the law, the MPT will aim to set up two funds: one to assist in providing universal telecommunications to the entire country and the other to promote capacity building. Both will demand telecommunications firms to donate 1 to 5 per cent of their gross revenue annually.

“This looks to be a good move, yes,” the anonymous industry representative told the Post prior to the two-day consultative meeting beginning yesterday.

“But this fund will quickly add up to millions of dollars. Who will be trusted to manage this fund and who will ensure there is no corruption?”

In addition, the MPT has taken steps to ensure co-operation in the industry and ensure reliable interconnection between operators.

“[Licensed telecom operators must] authorise other licence bearers to access their telecommunication services . . . without any discrimination and in accordance with standard conditions, techniques, service quality, transparent principle and affordable price,” the law states.

The MPT did not return the requests for comment.

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