Riven by Marxist-inspired genocide only a few decades ago, Cambodia now aspires to both democracy and something like a free market—at least, in theory.

But the country’s ruling party, the CPP, has been stung by recent elections, in which the opposition increased their seats in the country’s Senate and National Assembly. These developments have contributed to the government’s heightened anxiety about the Internet and social media.

There is nonetheless a “business case” for investing in Cambodian development right now, because the very things that make the government nervous are signs both of a growing potential market and a growing political will for Internet laws that both protect individuals and promote commerce.

The Cambodian government’s anxiety about the Internet should be no surprise. When you’re accustomed to winning the popular vote by runaway majorities, it’s disconcerting to find you’re holding your seats in the legislature by only a few percentage points. The CPP won a plurality of the popular vote (about 49 percent) in the last election for National Assembly seats in 2013. Its nearest competitor, the CNRP, garnered just above 44 percent. The result is that the CPP holds 68 of the Assembly’s 123 seats, while the CNRP holds 55.

It hasn’t helped the current government’s sense of insecurity that the 2013 Assembly election was marked by civil protest, which the government is inclined to blame, along with its slipping majority, on the rise of social media like Facebook, where individual Cambodians have felt free to share their political views.

An outgrowth of the CPP’s nervousness about the Internet is that elements in the government began to develop what they called a “cybercrime” law. It seemed, by its own terms, aimed at suppressing dissenting political speech. Cambodian civil-society organizations and international free-speech groups who managed to obtain a “leaked” draft of the law late last year were particularly troubled by the draft’s “Content and Websites” section, which would criminalize online behavior that aimed to:

That section obviously has a broad reach, given the government’s creativity in deciding what these vague provisions may mean in application. “If the law is adopted [in its current form], people will be criminally charged just for sharing, posting or expressing ideas online,” So Sorthy, communications and advocacy officer of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, told the Phnom Penh Post last December.

There were other disturbing sections of the draft, as well. These included provisions to punish criminal acts committed online more severely than those committed offline. Other provisions vastly expanded police agencies’ powers to search and seize computers and (even more invasively) mobile phones in the course of investigations. Given the breadth of substantive criminal provisions in the draft law, this expansion of government authority to search through citizens’ devices for criminal evidence was necessarily disturbing.

The “leaked” cybercrime draft was met with public criticism, largely from national and international NGOs. That public pushback ultimately resulted in the Cambodian government’s decision to disclaim that draft. The government actually does care about its public image, which is a heartening sign.

Alas, the criticism also probably fed the government’s initiative this year to pass “LANGO” (the Law on Associations and NGOs), which drastically asserted the government’s power to restrict or shut down nongovernmental organizations. As Voice of America reported in July: “The European Union, the United Nations and the United States, all key development partners, have spoken out against the LANGO; hundreds of nonprofits want it scrapped.” After pro forma consultations with civil-society organizations, the government rushed to pass the LANGO last summer in essentially the same form in which it was introduced.

Based on all that, it may seem reasonable to conclude that Cambodia isn’t yet fertile ground when it comes to Internet freedom and opening new Internet markets. But I can testify from my own experience (I was in Cambodia directly consulting with CSOs in January and again in July) that these recent developments have marked a positive inflection point for Cambodian civil society and Cambodian business stakeholders.

In the aftermath of LANGO, stakeholders no longer believe in passively waiting for invitations to consultation or in relying on international pressure (or protests alone) to change law and policy. Instead, they have actively embraced – and recruited regular citizens to embrace – a proactive Internet-rights agenda that aims to build Internet freedom and government obligations to promote Internet access into law.

They’ve learned from the examples of Brazil’s Marco Civil da Internet (passed into law last year) and the Magna Carta for Philippine Internet Freedom (now under consideration by the Philippines Congress) to heart. The Internet-rights frameworks in both Brazil and the Philippines were cast as counterweights to initiatives in those countries to pass ill-considered “cybercrime” laws; they faced essentially the same situation that Cambodia now faces.

This push for Internet-freedom frameworks creates unusual new opportunities for business stakeholders, including both Cambodian companies and multinational platform providers. Legal guarantees of freedom of speech and privacy (combined, ultimately, with appropriate safeguards for Internet-platform providers) encourage citizens to engage more fully in Cambodia’s growing broadband marketplace. Which is why business stakeholders have every incentive right now to persuade the government of Cambodia of the opportunities it has to bring the 21st-century free Internet marketplace to its citizens.

Featured Publications