Earlier this month, the Supreme Court of the Philippines suspended the implementation of a new law targeting cybercrime – in large part due to protests from netizens, free expression advocates and journalists' groups, including the Center for Media Freedom & Responsibility (CMFR).
The Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 came into effect on 3 October. Six days later, after Filipinos made #NoToCyberCrimeLaw trend on Twitter, turned their profile pictures on Facebook and Twitter black in protest, and submitted 15 separate petitions to the Supreme Court questioning the law's constitutionality, the Supreme Court suspended its implementation – for 120 days.
Proponents of the law argue that the cybercrime act would strengthen the Internet and free it of identity thieves, hackers, data pirates and cybersex offenders. They also maintain that it will benefit the economy as more Information and Communication Technology (ICTs) companies will be encouraged to invest in the Philippines.
While we and other critics agree that there is a need to punish those who use the Internet to harm children and women, or steal identities and data for illegal use, we also believe the government has no right to impose limitations on freedom of expression in exchange for security and safety on the web.
There are also existing laws Congress could have amended to address these violations – perhaps a better option than creating a vague, badly written and all-encompassing cybercrime law that could be subject to abuse.
Listed below are four reasons why we think the cybercrime law should be repealed.
1. The law extends criminal libel to the web.
Historically, politicians and other powerful individuals in the Philippines have abused the existing law on criminal libel to silence criticism. The husband of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo filed 11 libel suits against 46 journalists for approximately 140 million Philippine pesos (US$1.1m) in damages. (Miguel Arroyo dropped all libel suits in May 2007 after undergoing a heart surgery.)
In several instances, lower courts and prosecutors dismissed allegations of libellous online articles, citing that the penal code does not cover communications on the web. The new law would change this, extending criminal libel to websites, blogs and social media platforms. Some critics say the law would also cover information shared over texts or instant messaging tools on mobile phones. This means that a person who sends a text containing "malicious" comments could be charged with criminal libel.
Even those who forward, retweet, "like" or share information could face imprisonment for at least two years, or a fine of at least 100,000 pesos (US$2,400), or both. They call it "aiding and abetting" libel.
2. The law imposes higher penalties for libel committed online.
Under the new law, a person convicted of cyberlibel could spend a maximum of 12 years in prison. This is six years longer than the maximum year of imprisonment for libel committed in traditional media platforms (print and broadcast).
Plus, a person already facing libel charges for a story printed in a newspaper could be charged again under the new law if the same libellous article appears online. Most local news organisations repost what had been printed in the papers on their websites or blog, so they would all be susceptible.
This is in addition to the possibility of facing civil defamation charges. In the Philippines, a person can be sued for libel separately and independently under both its penal and civil codes.
3. The law gives government agencies the power to restrict and monitor Internet use.
The cybercrime law empowers the government – particularly the Department of Justice – to block access to any computer data which may contain information that violates the law. It can arbitrarily shutdown a website at first glance without due process.
The law also allows traffic data – including the "communication's origin, destination, route, time, date, size, duration, or type of underlying service" – to be collected and monitored in real time, and without a warrant. While authorities are prohibited from collecting data on content and user identities, this kind of traffic data can still be used to identify a person and access content on their computers.
There is also the possibility that the government could use this provision against selected groups. Commenting on this in a recent blog post, CMFR deputy director Luis Teodoro said, "Because the monitoring systems the Philippine National Police and the National Bureau of Investigation may put in place as sanctioned by the Act are not likely to have the capability to monitor the issuances of the millions of bloggers, social media users and websites, what's likely is that they will be selective by monitoring only those sites and individuals that are critical of government."
4. The law brazenly disregards national and international protections of free expression.
The Philippine Constitution explicitly protects the right to freedom of expression. It declares that "no law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances."
A few days before the cybercrime act came into effect, the Washington-based non-governmental organisation Freedom House ranked the Philippines as one of the countries with the freest Internet environment, citing the Constitution and Filipinos' unrestricted access to the Net.
The only criminal restriction on free expression – before the cybercrime law – was libel as defined in the penal code. But in October 2011, the United Nations Human Rights Committee declared the libel provisions as "excessive" and "incompatible" with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The council, acting on the petition filed by jailed broadcaster Alexander Adonis, said that the Philippines had "an obligation to take steps to prevent similar violations from occurring in the future, including by reviewing the relevant libel legislation."
The law has alarming implications for free expression on and off the Internet – self-censorship, website blocks, surveillance and legal harassment, to name a few. Implementing it would contribute to the deterioration of democracy as well as the free exchange of ideas in and out of the Philippines.
What you can do
The temporary restraining order will expire in February 2013. This leaves us less than four months to convince the Philippine Congress and the Supreme Court to repeal, or at least amend, the cybercrime act. Some senators and party-list representatives have filed bills for the repeal of the law. But since many of them are gearing up for the May 2013 general election, we fear that the bills will not be given due attention.
Help us convince Congress members – particularly the House of Representatives' Information and Communications Technology Committee headed by Rep. Sigfrido Tinga and the Senate's Science and Technology Committee headed by Sen. Edgardo Angara – to give ample time for the review of the law. Contact us at staff @ cmfr-phil.org for more information.
Melanie Pinlac is the Alerts Officer for the Center for Media Freedom & Responsibility (CMFR). CMFR is one of the petitioners in G.R. no. 203453 (National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, Philippine Press Institute, CMFR et al. v. Executive Secretary et al.). The petition – signed by 20 organisations and 253 individuals – was filed on 3 October, the day the cybercrime law took effect.