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Making a play on words

People browse the internet at a cafe near Wat Phnom in Phnom Penh
People browse the internet at a cafe near Wat Phnom in Phnom Penh yesterday. The government is in the early stages of a pilot project to manage ‘immoral’ internet content. Hong Menea

Making a play on words

The Ministry of Information is looking to China and Syria for inspiration for a pilot program aimed at blocking “immoral content” online, including speech that attacks political parties, a ministry press adviser has said.

“I understand in Syria and in China they take care of these kinds of things,” Ouk Kimseng told the Post on Monday. “We’re trying to create … a culture of dignified freedom of expression.”

The comments came after a ministry working group held a consultation meeting on Friday, led by Secretary of State Chea Chan Boribo, to discuss how they could “set up mechanisms to correct immoral wording on the internet”.

While a list of what precisely constitutes immoral content has not yet been finalised, it would include everything from hate speech and pornography to language that is propagandist or discriminatory toward supporters of a political party, Kimseng said.

The working group is looking at the feasibility of having web developers and web browsers – such as Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox – install a system that would block content containing a glossary of words that the Cambodian government would provide, Kimseng added.

Cambodian citizens’ access to the internet skyrocketed 1,177 per cent to about 908,400 people from 2008 to 2013. As more information is consumed and conversations are held online, government officials have noticed a degradation of decency, Kimseng said.

“Since the use of social media networks is booming in Cambodia … [users] can write whatever they want,” Kimseng said. “They can use any very, very bad word that cannot be said in public.”

The same goes for some websites run from abroad that purport to report factual news, but allegedly run only anti-government propaganda, he said. Kimseng, who also works as deputy director general of state-run Agence Kampuchea Presse, specifically named pro-opposition site KI Media as a site likely to be blocked.

User-generated posts on social media and websites for news outlets would all be fair game to be barred from Cambodian internet service providers (ISPs).

Few government officials, consultants or rights workers were aware of the project – which is not connected to the Council of Ministers’ controversial draft cybercrime law – until asked about it by a Post reporter this week.

Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmaker Mu Sochua said she believed it would violate Cambodia’s freedom of expression.

“If I see posts that – I agree – are sometimes very rude, it is up to me to continue reading,” she said. “I think this [pilot project] is very unwise; I think it is best for people to make their own judgement, to select what they want to read and what they don’t want to read.”

Unlike Sochua, who believes the public would vigorously reject internet censorship if put into effect, Transparency International Cambodia executive director Preap Kol believes citizens would embrace it if it was limited to content like pornography or material viewed as profane or insulting.

The government preventing slander, taunting and profanity online does not, Kol argued, diminish freedom of expression. But further censorship could.

“I think this is a welcome measure if the restrictions will only target content that is immoral, that is considered slander or impolite,” Kol said. “If it goes beyond, to the extent of limiting any expression of political views or expression of ideas … it may compromise the freedom of expression that is guaranteed by the Cambodian Constitution.”

Regardless of the moral quandaries surrounding internet censorship, technology available to work around government-imposed bans on certain content makes it impossible to block anything on the internet from reaching Cambodians with internet access.

Niklas Femerstrand, a Phnom Penh-based security, networking and anti-censorship consultant who also offers his consulting services to the Post, said governments generally have two options if they want to block content. They can either block the entire internet, only allowing websites created in-country and approved by the government to go live there – like in Iran – or they can order all ISPs in the country to bar websites that deviate from government standards – like in China.

If Cambodia were to follow in China’s footsteps, Femerstrand said, users would only have to use anonymising software such as Tor to circumvent the restrictions.

Tor, which originally stood for The Onion Router, essentially changes a user’s IP address, usually to one in a different country. For example, users could mask their Cambodia IP address with one from Belgium. This would allow them to access websites banned on Cambodian ISPs if the Information Ministry’s project were to come to fruition.

“The government doesn’t understand the technology it’s trying to battle,” Femerstrand said. “Any countermeasure to this would take about five minutes.”

Furthermore, blocking entire websites can be done automatically, but China has struggled with monitoring websites to make everything but “immoral” content available.

In China, a country of 1.3 billion, more than two million people work as internet monitors, according to the BBC.

As the Information Ministry working group looks into these issues, Kimseng said, the government just wishes to stop the flow of improper posts on social media and propaganda by some news sources.

“I think they should know how to establish news and information for the public,” Kimseng said.

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