Challenges to internet freedom in the Philippines

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Here are my *prepared* remarks for the Unconference 2 session at the Stockholm Internet Forum, held on May 27.

President BS Aquino boasted at the World Economic Forum in East Asia his government recently hosted in Manila that there has been an economic miracle. Not a few visitors agreed with him.

But up to now, we wonder which country President BS Aquino was describing. Filipinos feel that if there is any economic growth, it has not been inclusive. Only multinational corporations and big local businesses and big landlords have benefited from it.

The internet could be an open forum for democratic debate in the Philippines. We want to go online and discuss the claims of President BS Aquino and ask for government records to verify his allegations. We want to freely, openly and actively participate in governance and in nationbuilding but…

In 2012, President BS Aquino signed Republic Act 10175, more popularly known as the Cybercrime Law. His government said it was supposed to make the Philippines compliant with the Council of Europe (Budapest) cybercrime convention, to ensure protection and security of the internet vis-a-vis the economy.

But as we found out later that the law criminalized everything citizens do by mere use of a computer, mobile phone or any information and communication technology – whether it stands alone and disconnected or online.

Draconian cybercrime law

The Aquino cybercrime law is a draconian measure that criminalizes the use of the internet by citizens. It gives citizens the “chilling effect” that we may face long prison terms for speaking out online or using any ICT tool.
Instead of repealing it as demanded by journalists, citizens and the UN Human Rights Council, the Aquino cybercrime law expanded the old libel law.

The Aquino cybercrime law introduced cyberlibel or libel committed using any ICT. If found guilty of cyberlibel, a citizen faces imprisonment of up to 12 years.

Prior to this, a citizen convicted of libel faces imprisonment of up to 6 years.
Such penalty of long imprisonment for exercising free speech dates back to Spanish and American colonial rule.

Cybersex is also a new crime under the Aquino cybercrime law. Exactly how the government would define, investigate and capture cybersex offenders is unclear.

The Aquino cybercrime law also states that all other crimes and offenses in law books would have their penalties raised to the next higher level, if a suspect is found guilty of committing them using any ICT, whether it is connected online or offline.

The law states the unauthorized access or manipulation of data. This broad definition is of special concern for graphic artists, developers, those who hack websites to show the need for better security and whistleblowers against criminals.

We are also concerned about the Aquino cybercrime law’s failure to respect the rights to privacy and to due process.

It is very unfortunate that the Supreme Court denied our petitions seeking to nullify the Aquino cybercrime law. Five justices agreed with us and they happen to be the only ones known to avidly use the internet.

To know more about citizens critiques of the cybercrime law, check these legal documents filed by the Bloggers and Netizens for Democracy (BAND):
Petition for Certiorari, Memorandum, and Motion for Partial Reconsideration.

Here are the Supreme Court decisions: Decision, and Decision on the Motions for Partial Reconsideration

Freedom of Information

On the other hand, BS Aquino government continues to reject calls for the passage of a proposed Freedom of Information Law, citing national security and privacy of public officials.

It is interesting to note that the current FOI Bill was filed by citizens themselves at both houses of Congress through the process of indirect initiative. The bill has passed in the Senate, while the pro-administration House of Representatives has not taken action on it.

Although President BS Aquino is positively viewed as an anti-corruption leader and a scion of two democratic icons, he has refused to certify the FOI bill as an urgent administration. It bolsters the public’s view that Aquino may not be stealing money, but he is using his position to protect erring officials from being held accountable.

This combination of a cybercrime law and the lack of a Freedom of Information Law provide a big disincentive for citizens’ use of the internet for free and open discussion of issues and to hold government accountable and answerable for its actions and inaction in various issues, and for citizens to reap the other benefits from using the internet that introduce innovation, help set the stage for social development.

Snowden and Wikileaks

Reports say that Edward Snowden mentioned Manila as a victim of the US NSA’s metadata collection and surveillance.

The BS Aquino government appears to be ignorant of this or, worse, it allowed it to happen in clear violation of citizens’ constitutional right to privacy.

The Philippines and the US recently signed a controversial new agreement for US military basing in our country. We wonder if the US NSA’s MYSTIC operations were part of US preparations for the new agreement.

It is entirely possible that the illegal US spying operations also targetted Members of Congress, especially senators and partylist representatives. Senators have the constitutional duty to examine new agreements signed by government, while partylist representatives from the MAKABAYAN coalition wish to correct the unfair, disadvantageous and onerous Philippine-US relations. Le Monde has reported that US has spied on presumed presidential candidates in the 2016 elections.

The earlier Wikileaks documents also show that US spies also spied on high government officials of the Philippines.

The US has a right to defend itself or to promote its interests. But it should not violate people’s privacy and respect the dignity and data of persons. In the era of the internet, trust is very important. The US is losing the trust of Filipinos and other people because of the global spying operations.

Telcos

We also have to point out the role of telcos and service providers.
Under the Aquino cybercrime law, they are required to cooperate with authorities, sometimes without internationally-acceptable due process procedures to protect their customers.

Meanwhile, government is not doing anything to compel telcos to solve internet quality of service issues that make internet services in the Philippines the slowest and most expensive in our region.

While the Philippines is now known as the world’s social media capital, and selfie capital, quality and costs appear to slow the steps towards bridging the digital divide between 35 million Filipino netizens and 65 million others waiting to be connected and to experience the joys and benefits of the internet.

Prospects

Moving forward, Filipinos are now campaigning for the passage of a Magna Carta of Philippine Internet Freedom and the Freedom of Information Law despite the lack of support or resistance from President BS Aquino.

The MCPIF is a bill hammered out by bloggers and netizens themselves, using Facebook and Google Docs as principal crowdsourcing tools. The bill was first filed in Nov. 2012 in the Senate by Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago as a corrective measure to the cybercrime law. Senator Santiago filed it again in the Senate in 2013.

We have also supported more than a dozen bills repealing or decriminalizing libel and cyberlibel. We also ask Congress to pass a law against monopolies and laws to protect consumer rights in order to stop telco abuses, and for government to take steps to expand internet access starting in schools and in government offices.

If and when a citizen is charged under the Aquino cybercrime law, we may swiftly go back to the Supreme Court because it will provide us a test case towards nullifying it.

More and more Filipino internet users are today coming together – either as bloggers, developers, graphic artists and designers, advocates and civil libertarians – to form communities and together fight for common concerns. This sense of concern and vigilance give us confidence that we will be victorious in the end and if and when the Aquino government or its successors use the Aquino cybercrime law a la Turkey or Thailand.

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