Concerns Raised Over Shrinking Online Freedom

A digital rights defender has raised concerns about regional governments increasingly introducing legislation that clamp down on internet freedom – a topic that was discussed at Phnom Penh Internet Forum
A panel discussion at the forum, (left to right) Duch Piseth, Nop Vy and Michael Caster (far right). Kiripost via Phnom Penh Internet Forum
A panel discussion at the forum, (left to right) Duch Piseth, Nop Vy and Michael Caster (far right). Kiripost via Phnom Penh Internet Forum

A defender of digital rights worldwide has raised concerns about governments in the region increasingly introducing legislation that give them excessive authority to censor content online and block individual content or entire websites based on a variety of arbitrary justifications.

Michael Caster, ARTICLE 19’s Asia Digital Programme Manager, said, “We see this being attempted in multiple countries in the region. I guess it's still going as there has been a growing trend of governments around the world attempting to interfere with the Internet. This interference can take multiple forms.”

Caster spoke at Phnom Penh Internet Forum on Thursday and raised concerns about censorship and the suppression of information that is considered to be objectionable or harmful. This can be done by blocking websites, censoring content, or arresting and imprisoning people for expressing their views online.

Caster noted that there are a number of things that can be done to address these trends. Governments should repeal laws that restrict freedom of expression and access to information. They should also ensure that their security forces do not interfere with the internet.

Participants at the forum. Kiripost via Phnom Penh Internet Forum
Participants at the forum. Kiripost via Phnom Penh Internet Forum

“This is addressing a legitimate concern, the spread of harmful or potentially harmful disinformation or information manipulation. However, the response to this concern contradicts human rights principles. We need solutions that are grounded in human rights to effectively address these issues and concerns,” Caster said.

In Thailand, the Computer-Related Crimes Act (CRCA) has been used to target individuals who have expressed critical or dissenting views online. For example, people have been sentenced to multiple years in prison for using hashtags on Facebook that were critical of the monarchy.

In Vietnam, the Penal Code has been used to target individuals who have shared or disseminated information that is critical of the government or the Communist Party.

Caster said that Vietnam is an example of the manipulation of the penal code to stifle freedom of expression. Under a single article of the code, individuals have faced severe sentences of up to 20 years for simply sharing or disseminating “anti-state propaganda.”

Additionally, people have been handed lengthy prison terms ranging from eight to 16 years primarily for expressing their opinions online, particularly on platforms such as Facebook.

In addition to censorship, governments are also restricting the right to privacy by requiring accurate name verification for social media accounts and SIM cards. These efforts are often justified by claims that they are necessary to prevent criminal activity. However, real name verification infringes on the ability to engage online anonymously, which is essential for protecting the right to freedom of expression, he added.

He said the Special Rapporteurs of the Human Rights Council have stated that the ability to express oneself anonymously online provides a degree of protection that encourages and protects the exercise of the right to freedom of expression. This is particularly important in societies where journalists, lawyers, and other human rights defenders may be at risk of reprisals for their work.

“We also need to keep in mind the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. While these principles are not hard law, they are a set of best practices that outline the corporate responsibility of the private sector, especially tech companies, to protect human rights,” Caster said.

Nop Vy, Executive Director of the Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association (CamboJA), said at the forum that some of the laws currently in place still need to fully support internet freedom.

“If we take a closer look, Cambodia does not have laws that fully protect, support, and provide access to the internet for users so they can fully utilize their digital rights.”

Nop Vy expressed concern about the high level of digital illiteracy in Cambodia. He said that 70 percent of Cambodians do not have basic digital skills, which makes them vulnerable to various risks. For example, they may be more likely to fall victim to online scams, or they may be exposed to false information.

Vy said that these efforts are a positive step towards building a robust digital economy and society in Cambodia. However, it is important to ensure that these laws and policies are aligned with international standards and that they protect the rights of citizens.

Vy added that the government and other stakeholders should take steps to address the problem of digital illiteracy. He said that Cambodia needs to provide more education and training on digital skills and that there is also a need to raise awareness about the risks of online fraud and misinformation.

Duch Piseth, a human rights lawyer, said at the forum that although there are some laws that support digital rights in Cambodia, there are also some provisions that seem to restrict fundamental freedoms, especially freedom of expression and privacy.

"I do not agree with the idea that we should oppose a country for not having a law," he said. "Every country must have the rule of law, but it is important to ensure that the formulation and implementation of this law are in line with international law."