On August 7, Facebook was inaccessible in Cambodia for several hours, leaving media freedom groups suspicious of a ploy to restrict social media sites in the country. But Metfone, Cambodia’s most popular Internet service provider, claimed that a service upgrade operation caused the blockage.
Civil society groups reacted swiftly to the news, issuing a joint statement titled ‘Keep Media Free: Unrestricted Access to Social Media’ urging Metfone to explain the sudden blocking of Facebook. The statement read:
With traditional media being mostly, and in the case of television exclusively, controlled by the government, an increasing number of Cambodians rely on websites such as Facebook to access independent information.
We, the undersigned civil society groups, call upon Metfone to fully explain the purported technical issues that forced Facebook to become unavailable, to take the appropriate measures to ensure that such outages do not occur in the future, and to clarify why they continue to block other sites such as KI Media.
KI Media is a website known for its criticism of Hun Sen, who has been Cambodia’s Prime Minister for the past 28 years. The site is blocked by various ISPs in Cambodia.
Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith denied that the government ordered the blocking of Facebook, stating that it would be “completely crazy” for the government to try to control the Internet. “We have nothing to gain by closing Facebook, and we have no criminal law regarding the internet,” he said.
Although many were quick to point fingers at regulators, the blockage may have been the result of a technical problem. Traceroute testing indicates that much of the Internet traffic Metfone users view is routed from Vietnam. If censors in Vietnam were to misconfigure their firewall, sites censored in Vietnam could easily become blocked in Cambodia too.
The incident nevertheless sparked a flurry of commentary from public figures and on social media. Popular Cambodian blogger and Global Voices author Kounila Keo noted how young Cambodian voters actively shared information on Facebook in the recent election:
Facebook was earlier a place where a lot of young Cambodians went to seek entertainment. But Cambodian Facebook users, mostly young people from 18 to 35 years old, have gradually embraced this social network to share and receive information not usually seen in the mainstream media which is considered censored.
Since 2010 when Facebook became popular in Cambodia, videos and pictures of protests, crimes, and violence have been widely shared and circulated to broaden people's political horizons. By 2013, Facebook has become a level playing field for political debates from all sides.
Even United States Ambassador William Todd recognized Facebook as a site where alternative information about Cambodia’s situation are freely discussed:
…social media played a crucial role in disseminating a broad range of opinions and information to the electorate. With access to the Internet, people were able to access a variety of news sources and information. So even when traditional media outlets in Cambodia failed to cover major events or issues, Cambodians were able to learn about them through social media.
Cambodia’s ruling party managed to win again in the recent National Assembly elections but it lost a significant number of seats to the Opposition. It has been accused of committing widespread fraud which undermined the voting process.
Although the blocking may have resulted from technical issues, suspicions of foul play on the government's part were grounded in recent experience. In 2011, Internet Service Providers restricted access to social media sites and platforms including Blogspot in response to requests from government authorities.
Collin Anderson provided research and analysis on technical aspects of this post.