People uses their mobile phones on the Tonle Sap riverside in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, February 18, 2021. REUTERS/Cindy Liu
FILE - People uses their mobile phones on the Tonle Sap riverside in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Feb. 18, 2021.

The United States is expressing concern over the Cambodian government’s recent move to set up a national internet gateway that critics say will give authorities more power to surveil and censor internet users in the country. 

State Department Deputy Spokesperson Jalina Porter told VOA on Monday that the United States champions the freedom of expression on the internet as a matter of policy and she expressed concern over the Cambodian measures’ impact on Khmer Americans. 

“We have a significant amount of Khmer Americans who are here in the United States. And we want to ensure that they're able to really speak to their family and their friends and relatives who are still back in the country,” she said.  

FILE - Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen waves to government civil servants in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Jan. 7, 2020.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen signed the new sub-decree on February 16, requiring internet service providers to reroute their services through a National Internet Gateway (NIG) within the next 12 months.    

Hun Sen’s government says the directive will boost Cambodian information technology infrastructure and control content that could harm “national security and social order.”    

But critics said the move is giving the Cambodia government more control over the flow of information on the internet and the ability to block content and websites.    

People walk using their mobiles phones in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, February 18, 2021. REUTERS/Cindy Liu
Internet Gateway Will Further Curb Free Speech in Cambodia, Rights Groups Say
Cambodia’s plan for national internet gateway will give authorities greater control over internet content in an already restricted country, rights groups warn 

The State Department will soon unveil its 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. In its 2019 annual report, the State Department cited government entities monitoring online discussions in Cambodia.     

“Three days before the 2018 national election, the government ordered local telecommunication companies to block several independent news websites,” according to the State Department.  

Critics have accused the country of patterning its internet regulations on China, where authorities have locked down the domestic internet behind a massive government firewall. 

“Prime Minister Hun Sen struck a dangerous blow against internet freedom and e-commerce in Cambodia by expanding the government’s control over the country’s internet,” said Phil Robertson, who is the Deputy Director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division.  

In a statement, Cambodia’s Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications refuted the accusations that the new NIG directive would pave the way for a Chinese-style censorship, saying such allegations are “unfounded” and “politically motivated.” It added a new law would soon be drafted to protect personal data.