Internet Governance, Censorship, and the UN Multistakeholder Approach – Sunday, 28.2.2010

Posted on 2 March 2010. Filed under: *Editorial*, Week 653 |

The Mirror, Vol. 14, No. 653

Apologies for the delay:

This is sent from Kuala Lumpur. I will be traveling until mid March in fulfilling my task as a member of the Nominating Committee of ICANN – the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the organization that coordinates the management of the Internet addresses worldwide – to help to find candidates for the positions of members of the board of directors and other positions of leadership, and to evaluate and to appoint them.

I hope that the timing of the publication of The Mirror will not be affected too much, but some delays will be unavoidable.

Norbert Klein, editor

On Saturday, we mirrored an article reporting that in the course of the last five years, about US$500 million had been spent on information technology in Cambodia, and that the annual amount is increasing by about 30%. Information and Communication Technology – ICT – is an important factor in the development of a country – it creates jobs, and the services which become possible through the use of its instruments and its infrastructure have a deep impact on the economy and on the society.

Most people who use e-mail and other services of the Internet are satisfied when it works, and they do not care further. But from time to time it becomes obvious that the technology behind, which allows such convenient communication, can also become the instrument of unexpected and unwelcome interventions. Then, the social implications of some technical procedures provide a challenge to look into a field often covered under the term “Internet governance.”

So we will start with some technology first. – Some years ago, I was involved in a survey about the routes which e-mail from different ISPs – Internet Service Providers – travels. At that time it was obvious that mail sent from an account on Camnet to an account on Bigpond (to use an example from that time) traveled first out of the country on an expensive satellite link, then was redirected to another satellite to come back to Cambodia to end up in the mailbox of a user. Even if both sender and receiver were sitting in the same room, but had their e-mail addresses from different ISPs, an e-mail would travel via satellite out, and then back to earth again to return to another computer in the same room. A big waste, which contributes also to the high telecommunication costs in Cambodia.

But there is a way to avoid such waste: to set up direct links between different ISPs, so that e-mail between different users of the cooperating ISPs is redirected to travel on direct links via Internet Exchange Points – IXPs – in country, without long and expensive detours via satellite. As it is usual in many countries, the idea was discussed among different ISPs, and some – but not all – agreed to set up exchange points in Cambodia. This works so far quite well.

Now some change is proposed – what is the existing cheap technical solutions might become more expensive, and a single IXP would be used to monitor, filter, and maybe block certain Internet communication.

The debate started to get into the wider public with a report in the Phnom Penh Post on 31.12.2009, which said among others: “Two Internet exchange points (IXPs) are operating in Cambodia with the support of the majority of Internet service providers (ISPs), despite previous comments from the government that it wants state-owned Telecom Cambodia to monopolize the key connectivity service.” The existing multiple links work already: “We have 31 operating ISPs and only five smaller ISPs are not interconnected; we do not see the need for a government initiative.” And: the two existing Exchange Points do not charge for the service. It was also stated that the intended centralization by the government owned Telecom Cambodia would also endanger the technical security for all international communication because creating one single communication link creates at the same time a single point of failure. And an additional Exchange Point would also be welcome as an incentive for competition – “as long as it did not operate as a monopoly.”

But exactly this seems to be the intention.

On 24.2.2010, Mr. Chin Daro, the deputy director of Telecom Cambodia, which wants to get the exclusive right to operate an Exchange Point for the whole country which everybody would have to use and pay for, was quoted in the Phnom Penh Post saying, “If any Web site attacks the government or any Web site displays inappropriate images or pornography, or it’s against the principle of the government, we can block all of them.”

The debate took a very welcome principled turn by statements by the Minister of Information, reported in the Phnom Penh Post on 26.2.2010. “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,” adding, “Who should decide what should be filtered?”

The Minister of Posts and Telecommunications does not share this opinion. And the Phnom Penh Post adds, “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 Ministry of Post and Telecommunication 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.’”

When the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia was promulgated in 1993, Article 40 gave guidance to the freedom of communication (though at a time when the Internet did not yet play a wide role in correspondence and information exchange – the same spirit probably applies to the Internet):

  • “Citizens’ freedom to travel, far and near, and legal settlement shall be respected.
  • Khmer citizens shall have the right to travel and settle abroad and return to the country.
  • The rights to privacy of residence, and to the secrecy of correspondence by mail, telegram, fax, telex and telephone shall be guaranteed.
  • Any search of the house, material and body shall be in accordance with the law.”

It is also surprising how a high-ranking officer of a government institution can publicly announce that Telecom Cambodia intends the following: “If any Web site attacks the government … we can block all of them.” Actually, public servants are expected to serve under the Constitutions of the Kingdom of Cambodia, which solemnly declares in its Preamble: “Having awakened, stood up with a resolute determination to strengthen the national unity… and to restore Cambodia into an ‘Island of Peace’ based on a multi-party liberal democratic regime guaranteeing human rights and the respect of law…” A multi-party liberal (!) democratic (!) regime lives from defending the freedom for critical and opposing publicly debated opinion – and its officers are expected to defend the Constitution, not to stifle its application.

The present Minister of Information has a long history of defending these principles. He expressed his opinion against Internet censorship already once in 1999, when he was Secretary of State in the same ministry, at a time when there were rumors in the press in Hong Kong, that Cambodia would start to censor the Internet, in a letter of 3 June 1999, which he wanted to have shared widely, to Mr. Bill Herod, who had been active in helping to promote the use of the newly established Camnet e-mail system:

Dear Sir,

I do not know where SCMP [the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong] got this news (“Planned Net law ‘threat to democracy,’” May 31, 1999), but I can assure you that I am the one who has been fighting and continues to fight for the freedom of Internet access and the free flow of information in general. Everyday I find in my e-mail all kinds of information including some mail insulting me.

This is a fact of life. When we never attempt to control the import of books and magazines into Cambodia why would we want to block the Internet? What I said about the terrorist sites was only to express my concern over the price to be paid. Please be assured that I am very supportive of this form of communication and I will spare no effort in defending it. I hope you can help communicate this assurance to all of your subscribers and, if you have any problem concerning this issue, please feel free to contact me.

Your sincerely,

Khieu Kanharith

[Source: Digital Review of Asia Pacific 2003/2004, published by ORBICOM, IDRC, UNDP-APDIP, 2003, page. 138]

And again more recently, when for the first time some Cambodian ISP partly blocked access to some Internet web sites. The web site of K7 Media reported on 5.3.2009:

“Cambodian Minister of Information, Khieu Kanharith reacted officially to the publication of articles by ‘foreign language media’ alleging that the Cambodian government is trying to control audiovisual content on the Internet with a draft law. On Thursday March 5th, in front of journalists convened for a press conference on this topic, he said that he considered it ‘impossible’ to implement such measures…

“Khieu Kanharith stressed that the government had never sought to restrict access to some websites: when the website of the British environmental organization Global Witness was blocked, it resulted not from an intervention of the authorities, but – according to him – to that of a private Internet service provider, Angkor Net, who had decided on its own initiative to prevent its users from accessing it.

“’Even the Reahu blog which presents pictures of [bare-breasted] Apsaras was not shut down by the government,’ he added.

“’This is not a restriction on the freedom of the media. It was never in the intention of the government and the Ministry of Information to control on-line audiovisual contents,’ the Minister argued. He also claimed that the government supported press freedom and welcomed the fact that more and more Cambodians knew how to ‘use the Internet and the Khmer Unicode font [which enables to view (a unified, standardized version of the) Khmer script].’”

The discussion will continue. But it is now a discussion, where different persons in different high public position have different opinions, and share them publicly. The Mirror was created, from the beginning, with the conviction that the public exchange of opinion is an important exercise in implementing the high goals which liberal multi-party societies practice and enjoy, and by doing so contribute to the healthy development of society.

Since the United Nations held its first World Summits for the Information Society in 2003 and 2005, they were organized as “multi-stakeholder” events: governments, business, and civil society were cooperating together to tackle the new challenges of the Information Society. This model should also be applied in Cambodia.

Please recommend The Mirror also to your colleagues and friends.

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