Draft Telecoms Law Gives Gov’t Broad Spying Powers

A new draft of the proposed Telecommunications Law would give authorities the right to eavesdrop on any conversation, along with a host of other powers that a rights group has warned would effectively nationalize private service providers.

The latest draft has been approved by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s cabinet and reached the National Assembly late last month for a pending vote. A copy of the draft, obtained this week, differs from a version that was leaked in mid-2014 but retains many of the provisions that raised red flags for rights group Licadho at the time.

For example, anyone found secretly listening to or recording a conversation that he or she is not participating in via “a telecommunications system” can face a fine of up to 2 million riel, about $500, and a year in prison—unless the eavesdropping is “approved by relevant people or allowed by legal authorities.”

But the draft mentions no legal parameters within which approval may be granted.

As with the previous version, the new draft also gives the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications (MPT) the power to retrieve any service data from private providers and give them any instructions it chooses under what it determines to be unusual circumstances.

“All telecom operators and other stakeholders related to the telecom sector shall provide the MPT all telecom service data,” it says. “In case of force majeure, the MPT or other competent ministries or institutions can order telecom operators to take necessary measures based on the government’s decision.”

The law would also enshrine some significant powers for the Telecommunications Regulator of Cambodia, which was established in 2012.

If a provider violates any condition of its license, the regulator can take a variety of measures, from suspending the license to firing senior staff, including the director general.

Besides eavesdropping, the draft lays out penalties for a host of other crimes.

Establishing, installing or using telecom infrastructure and networks for acts that “can cause the destruction of national security” could land an offender in prison for up to 15 years.

Anyone found guilty of threatening to commit a civil or penal crime against an individual via “any means of telecommunications” could face up to six months in jail and a fine of 1 million riel. The penalty jumps to two years and 4 million riel if the threat is made with the aim of forcing the target to commit or call off a particular act, and to three years and 6 million riel if it’s a death threat.

Opposition lawmaker Mao Monivann, deputy chairman of the National Assembly’s telecommunications commission, said he had seen the law, but declined to comment because he had yet to study it.

Licadho also declined to comment because it was not yet finished reviewing the new draft. But in a May report based on a similar version leaked in 2014, the rights group warned of the consequences of its broad sweep and vague language.

“It appears to aim at nothing less than the extension of government control over the very architecture of the Internet itself,” the report says.

“Taken as a whole, the draft Law on Telecommunications appears to be nothing short of an attempt to establish overarching central control over Cambodia’s Internet and telecommunications infrastructure,” it said. “In essence, the law envisions the de facto nationalization of Cambodia’s telecoms industry.”

Critics of the government’s efforts to regulate telecommunications also worry that the ruling CPP will use any new powers to stifle dissent that should be legally protected at a time when the Internet is becoming an increasingly powerful tool for the opposition.

The government has already issued directives and proclamations for the installation of surveillance equipment on the networks of 12 mobile operators and Internet providers and to create a “cyber war team” to monitor social media to “protect the government’s stance and prestige.”

The director of the Telecommunications Regulator of Cambodia, Mao Chakrya, could not be reached for comment. Post and Telecommunications Minister Prak Sokhon declined to speak with a reporter.

But a spokesman for the ministry, Khov Makara, insisted that Cambodia needed the law.

“In general, the Telecommunications Law has three goals: first, to protect investors; second, to protect users, including the general public, companies and state institutions; and for the state to collect national revenue effectively.”

Mr. Makara said applying penalties for existing crimes to new media was a logical next step.

“When they commit a crime using telecommunications, we need the Telecommunications Law to punish them and make it clear,” he said.

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