Friday, January 21, 2011

The curious case of the banning that wasn’t

Two days ago rumors flew that the Cambodian government had blocked all blogspot websites, presumably to prevent access to the controversial blog KI Media and possibly Khmerization as well. Blogspot sites were unavailable through some ISP providers in Cambodia for most of the day.

That night and again yesterday, the Cambodian government denied that it had ordered any such ban. And by the following day blogspot was once again accessible through most ISP providers in Cambodia.

So how did the rumors of the blogspot ban begin?

On the morning of the 19th internet users in Cambodia noted on social media and discussion forums that blogspot seemed to be either partially or wholly unavailable in-country. Some were quick to suggest that an official ban had been imposed. Such a move by the government was not wholly unexpected as they had threatened to regulate internet access before and had very recently expressed strong concerns over the blogspot site KI Media.

By midday tell had it that an ISP provider was informing its customers that it had blocked blogspot on the request of the Cambodian Ministry of Interior. So around 2PM I phoned the provider, spoke to a customer representative and asked straight out, “Have you blocked blogspot?” to which she responded with a quick and unequivocal “Yes…the Ministry of Interior has requested all ISP providers in Cambodia to block all of blogspot.” I called them again a few hours later at the end of the workday, asked the same question and received the same answer, virtually verbatim, sounding very much like a prepared statement. I probed a bit, asking if they might narrow or lift the ban in the future and was told it depended on instructions from the Ministry.

The following day the Phnom Penh Post reported that upper management of the ISP provider was denying having received any instructions from the government and that the outage had been caused by a “technical glitch.” This is curious.

This would seem to imply that the information the customer service reps had been giving all day was the result of some sort of communication breakdown. But if a misunderstanding, how did the reps come to deliver such a specific confirmation of a government ban, right down to naming the ministry and other details of the ban? If it was some sort of miscommunication within the company, it is difficult to imagine the mechanics of it.

Did the company techs tell their customer rep staff there was “a technical glitch causing inaccessibility of some sites” that they somehow misheard as “the Ministry of Interior has requested that all ISP providers in Cambodia block all of blogspot”? That would be quite the misunderstanding. Did some manager simply assume the outage was a result of a government ban as well as all the other attending details and pass that on to the customer reps? That would be quite the assumption.

It would seem that there is more to the story than a mere technical glitch. Perhaps... Testing the waters? Somebody jump the gun or overstep their authority? Idle talk mistaken for a wink and a nod? A subtle move screwed up by loose lips and/or heavy handed techs? An honest misunderstanding of enormous coincidental proportions? In lieu of additional information, what that ‘more’ might be is a matter of speculation.

If nothing else, the episode provided a glimpse of what would happen if such a ban were implemented. Almost immediately there was an outcry from observers both in and outside Cambodia, within hours information on how to bypass the block via proxy servers was circulated, KI Media began to set up mirror sites outside of blogspot and it all turned into a huge publicity boom for the site, acting to promote KI Media rather than suppress it.

All this said, as of today there is no official ban on blogspot (though a couple of providers still seem to be suffering some sort of 'technical glitch') and, to its great credit, Cambodia still has the freest and most open internet access in mainland Southeast Asia.


  1. Interesting post. All sounds a bit fishy to me.

    But then if the government wanted to take down KI Media surely they could just block that site rather than attack Blogspot in its entirety.

  2. Ahh, but Simon - your reckoning doesn't include the tech-savvy of some of the ISP staff here...

  3. My boyfriend is traveling through Cambodia currently and is unable to access his blog on Blogger/Blogspot. He is connecting to various wi-fi spots using an iPad, so it is tough for him to orchestrate a work-around of the "technical glitch." Quite annoying. Thanks for your posts.