Internet users will need to be careful what they ‘like.’ Photo: owenwbrown, under a CC License.
A mining activist has been arrested for an allegedly libellous Facebook post. Hospital nurses lost their jobs for ‘liking’ a doctor’s Facebook status critical of the hospital administration. A resident of Cebu supposedly received a subpoena because of a YouTube video.
Welcome to the Philippines, a country that in September passed the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, also known as RA 10175 – a law that effectively curtails internet freedom.
On 9 October, the Supreme Court issued a 120-day temporary restraining order on the controversial Act, following a huge public outcry, a string of protests and more than ten petitions filed by various groups and individuals.
But the restraining order is only temporary and, according to critics, victory is only partial. Come January, the order will expire and the law will again take effect.
The Supreme Court has received 15 petitions, which question the constitutionality of the legislation. Various groups have raised concerns because it increases the penalties for libel and allows authorities to spy on citizens using the internet.
The High Court is set to hear the oral arguments of all the petitioners on 15 January 2013.
Various groups such as the Philippine Internet Freedom Alliance (PIFA) have vowed to continue fighting. ‘We implore our elected representatives to reconsider their positions in light of the order of the Supreme Court. We demand that they junk RA 10175 and start the process of crafting a new law that involves the participation of all stakeholders – whether offline or online. PIFA calls on the Filipino people to remain vigilant and protect this temporary victory,’ PIFA said in a statement.
International organizations such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) have also urged the Philippines to repeal or replace the law.
Brad Adams, HRW Asia director, said the legislation violates Filipinos’ rights to free expression and it is incompatible with the Philippine government’s obligations under international law.
Furthermore, Adams said that if Congress still wants to have a law governing online activity, it should ensure that it would not infringe on civil liberties or human rights.
‘All provisions in Philippine law that allow for imprisonment for peaceful expression should be repealed. Congress should also ensure that any discussion on proposed laws be done in a transparent manner,’ he said.
The Act defines several new acts of cybercrime such as cybersex, online child pornography, illegal access to computer systems or hacking, online identity theft, and spamming, according to HRW.
‘Anybody using popular social networks or who publishes online is now at risk of a long prison term should a reader – including government officials – bring a libel charge,’ Adams said.
He said that allegedly libellous speech, online or offline should be handled as a private civil matter, not a crime.
HRW called on the Philippines government to repeal its existing criminal libel law but the Aquino administration has shown little inclination to support legislation pending in the Philippine Congress to decriminalize libel.
Media groups also criticized the government for passing a law that puts the country back in the era of martial law, referring to the military regime under the 20-year reign of the late Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s to early 1980s.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) said in its petition that the Act would put the Philippines under ‘cyber authoritarianism.’
When President Benigno Aquino III was elected President in 2010, he promised the Freedom of Information Act, a measure that would improve citizen’s access to government documents.
He has not fulfilled his promise. Instead, he signed the cybercrime measure.
Now, it remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court will heed the voice of petitioners and repeal the law altogether.
The December 2012 issue of New Internationalist focuses on internet rights. For updates see the magazine section of our website.