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UN rapporteurs' concerns on National Internet Gateway 'imaginary'

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Men place banners outside the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications in Phnom Penh in February. Heng Chivoan

UN rapporteurs' concerns on National Internet Gateway 'imaginary'

The Ministry of Post and Telecommunications rebuffed concerns raised by three UN special rapporteurs regarding the establishment of the National Internet Gateway (NIG), which they said may post serious risks to freedom of expression and privacy.

In a response letter addressed to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights via the Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of Cambodia to the UN in Geneva on May 24, which was made public on June 7, the ministry said allegations of privacy infringement were untrue and contradicted by the actual text of the government’s sub-decree.

Cambodia issued the sub-decree establishing the NIG on February 16. Comprised of 11 chapters and 20 articles, it also incorporates and manages the Domestic Internet Exchange (DIX) and the International Internet Gateway (IIG).

Following the sub-decree on April 7, three human rights experts – special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia Rhona Smith; special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the rights to freedom of opinion and expression Irene Khan; and special rapporteur on the right to privacy Joseph Cannataci – wrote a letter to the ministry seeking a response to their concerns.

“Concerns have been expressed that the creation of the NIG would pose serious risks to the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, as well as the right to privacy,” the rapporteurs wrote in a joint letter, citing Article 17 and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

They said the sub-decree has “overly-broad” and “ambiguous terminology” such as “affect safety, national revenue, social order, dignity, culture, tradition and customs”. Such wording, they said, was an undefined ground for action that may enable the authorities to “carry out arbitrary mass surveillance of private communications and wide spread censorship of online content.”

“Please explain how the decision is necessary and proportionate and how it is in line with the rights to privacy and freedom of expression and opinion,” the experts requested, also inquiring if civil society organisation comments were taken into account.

In response, the ministry said the NIG sub-decree is just telecommunication infrastructure regulation and was prepared in a transparent manner followed by consultations with the private sector and other relevant institutions.

The ministry said civil society organisations were not consulted because the establishment of the NIG was primarily a matter of concern for telecommunications operators.

The ministry said the allegations and concerns of the special rapporteurs on the risks of privacy infringement and surveillance of internet activities were untrue and contradictory to the sub-decree.

“The Royal Government of Cambodia respects the individual’s right to privacy and freedom of expression while protecting their personal data. [These principles] are enshrined in the laws of the Kingdom of Cambodia – including the Constitution, ratified international human rights treaties, the Civil Code, the Criminal Code, and the Law on Telecommunications,” the ministry said.

It said there are no provisions in the sub-decree that authorise the collection of consumer data, allows the government to conduct individual surveillance or that particularly restricts freedom of expression.

The NIG was created to increase the effectiveness of national revenue collection on the basis of fair and honest competition and transparency between the state and telecommunications operators.

The ministry said it will also help to prevent illegal cross-border network connections, illegal online gambling, cyber threats, illegal online pornography, online child abuse, online fraud and national and international crime of all kinds.

“The false allegations regarding the sub-decree permitting the ‘Cambodian authorities to monitor and conduct surveillance of internet activity, intercept and censor digital communications, and collect, retain and share personal data of users are all imaginary and made irresponsibly against a sovereign state with baseless assumptions,” the ministry said.

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