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Internet Way of Networking 18 February 2022

How Cambodia’s Internet Gateway Will Harm the Internet

By Adrian WanSenior Policy and Advocacy Manager
Charles MokMember, Internet Society Board of Trustees

Cambodia should evaluate the impact of its plans to route all Internet traffic through a “national Internet gateway” on the Internet. 

While the deadline for Internet service providers and telecommunications companies to connect to the gateway had been set for 16 February 2022, the plans have reportedly been delayed to an unspecified date

But the delay does nothing to change the nature of this gateway—it only pushes worrying effects off into the future. In fact, in a newly published Internet Impact Brief, we find that the gateway would undermine critical elements that make the Internet an open, globally connected, secure, and trustworthy resource for everyone.

The national gateway will manage all local and international Internet traffic—both incoming and outgoing. According to the decree, it aims to “strengthen the effectiveness and efficiency of the national revenue collection” and support the “protection of national security, and preservation of social order, culture, and national tradition.” Much of the substance of the decree, however, is undefined and unspecified.

Any cross-border networks that are currently authorized by the Cambodian government have to be rerouted and updated by the deadline. In addition, all network operators must connect to the gateway by this date, which has facilities in only four locations in the country. 

Severe Impact on Global Internet Reach

The Cambodian telecoms authority will designate providers to run the national gateway that funnels all Internet traffic in and out of the country, so that no other networks can access the global Internet directly or independently. This will severely impact a network’s global reach and limit collaboration between Cambodia and the rest of the world by putting up barriers across our Internet ecosystem. 

As networks are not allowed to interconnect where it makes most technical and commercial sense to them, the result is likely to be significant degradation of network performance and increase in costs. 

Given most of the Internet traffic in the country is driven by content from overseas companies, like Meta (Facebook), Google, and TikTok, with only a small amount generated locally, Cambodia’s talents, innovations, and technological development will likely be stunted as a result. 

Considering the wide range of responsibilities the decree gives gateway operators—including facilitating public revenue collection and protecting national security, among others—content passing through the gateway will almost certainly be intercepted and inspected. Coupled with the mandate that Internet service providers, including telecommunications companies, should verify user identities, and gateway operators should keep users’ technical records for a year, there is a high likelihood that the privacy of all Cambodians will be seriously compromised. 

While the substance and timing of the national gateway’s implementation remains unclear, its purposes and structure clearly present risks that could greatly weaken the ability of anyone in the country to preserve the confidentiality and integrity of their communications, for instance, by weakening or breaking encryption. 

The harsh penalties will likely make gateway operators take precautions to not be held liable for targeted data that passes through their networks. They would probably implement technical measures to block online resources, but these techniques typically “over-block” legitimate content, resulting in collateral damage and increased restrictions on the Internet. 

Since no other networks in the country can legally access the global Internet directly or independently, innovations in cross-border connectivity, such as Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, which can connect remote, rural, or underserved areas, will be unable to operate flexibly within and across Cambodia’s borders. Other innovative technologies will be curtailed by technical restrictions of the gateway and not reach their full potential. 

Poorer Quality of Service and Restricted Access

All these measures, and more detailed in the Internet Impact Brief, will not just affect Cambodia’s Internet infrastructure. For end users, it may also mean poorer quality of service in general, as their experience online, such as delivery of broadcast video and device-to-device calling, will likely be slower and less stable. 

These changes will restrict Cambodia’s access to global technologies and knowledge and isolate it in the digital age. The gateway will hurt all businesses and all Internet users across Southeast Asia and beyond. 

We call on the Cambodian authority to undertake a full and robust Internet impact assessment to identify the potential harms to the Internet resulting from the gateway. 

It should actively encourage networks in the country to be freely connected to the global Internet, and network operators to collaborate to provide optimal quality of service to users, to unleash the country’s massive potential in our digital age. 

The choices we make today will impact the Internet’s future. Its trajectory will depend on all of us making informed decisions that prioritize social development, economic prosperity, and innovations that amplify the best of humanity. 

Read our Internet Impact Brief on Cambodia’s National Internet Gateway.

Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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