Want to visit an Internet cafe in downtown Phnom Penh? If the government has its way, that might not be an option for too much longer.
New circular 1815 has been put out by the Cambodian government that states that Internet cafes shouldn’t be allowed to operate within 500 meters of schools or educational institutions. Further, people under 18 won’t be allowed to use Internet cafes either, and no one will be allowed to play “all kinds of games.” Why?
Because Cambodians are apparently engaging in terrorism, economic crimes, and even looking at pornography with the benefit of the Internet. (And here I thought they were all just playing Facebook). You can read the circular in Khmer here.
OK. These directives sound simple enough, if rather insulting—until you take into account just how many schools there really are here in Phnom Penh.
Human rights NGO LICADHO is on the case—and they’ve produced a rather damning map of Cambodian schools, with the requisite 500 meter No Internet Zone drawn around them. As you can see, that leaves essentially no room for Internet cafes to operate, and spells big trouble for the many already extant within the red-zones. Problem.
What would happen if an Internet cafe is caught within the red zone, or if a “crime” is committed on the premises? The circular, according to LICADHO, says the shop would be closed, all the equipment would be confiscated, and owners would face arrest. No big.
Furthermore, average Cambodian Internet users would suddenly find themselves with very limited access to information—likely the intended result of the circular.
“There is nowhere for the Internet cafes to go,” said Urban Voice Cambodia team member Nora Lindström at a mapping meeting last night of the new circular.
“That means only people who have personal computers can access the Internet, while people who are using Internet cafes will not be able to access the internet. This is a issue of freedom of expression, and freedom to access information.”
I’ve got to wonder how exactly this directive might apply to hotels and cafes that provide free computers for customers to use, although they’re not primarily “Internet cafes” as such. I have a rather sneaking suspicion that lucrative businesses that cater primarily to Internet-addicted foreigners would probably be able to get away with an exemption—or at least some healthy bribes.
Sure, it’s unclear exactly how much power a “circular” actually has to effect change here in Cambodia, or if this is likely to ever become law. But the fact it’s floating around at all is a disturbing indication that the Cambodian government is looking into restricting its relatively free Internet, following the deeply dubious lead of China, an influential friend to the Hun Sen regime.
Furthermore, they’re doing it in a way that’s downright condescending. Did they really think the pro-Internet freedom lobby would fail to notice and condemn this immediately?
Finally: even if this measure never becomes law, it’s enough of a Sword of Damocles over the heads of Internet cafe owners. It could easily be used as a rationale for unscrupulous sorts in the government to collect hefty bribes from owners if they want to continue operating. As we well know, that could get ugly.
How can we fight back?
At a mapping meeting last night in Phnom Penh, social-mapping group Urban Voice Cambodia offered one interesting solution: crowd-sourcing the locations of all the Internet cafes in Phnom Penh.
No one knows exactly where these cafes are in relation to schools, and putting them down on paper could help alert the owners whose businesses are at risk of closure, or at least serious extortion.
Furthermore, this action would indicate to the government that Internet freedom supporters are absolutely paying attention—and a supposedly “sneaky” circular like the Internet Cafe rule is by no means going to go unnoticed.
“We want to crowd-source the location of all the Internet cafes in PP, because whether or not the government decides to implement this decree—which seems unimplementable—it does allow them threaten and intimidate owners of internet cafes to pay bribes to continue operating,” said Nora Lindström.
So if you’ve got any time this week and are an advocate of the free Internet in Cambodia, head to Urban Voice Cambodia and document your friendly neighborhood Internet cafe. You can submit a report here, and it’s a very easy process. Every little bit helps.
Licadho’s report on the circular here.