(This article was first published in print in issue 15 of the Philippine Collegian on 03 October 2012.)
by Malcolm Rommel Aniag
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Computer beeps. One new notification: you have one new warrant of arrest.
Republic Act 10175 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act (CPA) has disrupted the smooth flow of affairs in the cyber realm, much like the commotion it stirred in the real world after drawing a flurry of criticisms.
Merely three months since Congress consolidated various versions of the bill, President Benigno Aquino III signed CPA into law last September 12 with nary a whisper of debate.
As “the State recognizes the vital role of Information and Communications Technologies” in the nation’s social and economic development, CPA seeks to make these platforms safer by extending the rule of law from the real world to the cyber world. For penalizing cybercrimes like cyber prostitution and cyber human trafficking, the CPA could have proven itself innovative and timely in an era when traditional crimes are rampantly committed online.
Such merits however, are clearly overshadowed by various contentions against the law —poorly worded and ambiguous provisions, and sections that can potentially lead to the curtailment of freedom of speech, expression, and other civil liberties.
A popular sentiment against the CPA is its provision on online libel (see sidebar 1). Concerned organizations have tagged the CPA a “backward step” in the longstanding call to decriminalize libel.
“The libel laws of the Philippines are much excessive compared to other democratic states,” says UP Law Professor Harry Roque, a libel decriminalization advocate. The United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) has already declared Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code, which criminalizes libel, as “incompatible with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights.”
“[UNHRC] did so as they find Philippine libel laws… an impediment to civil and intellectual discourse,” Roque argues.
Also, the seeming ambiguity (see sidebar 1) of CPA’s provisions “show that cyberlaws are unfamiliar territory for lawmakers and that the [CPA] was railroaded,” says UP School of Library & Information Science Dean Johann Frederick Cabbab. Had Congress sought proper advice from computer experts, these willfully excessive provisions would have been avoided, he adds.
Understandably, the rate by which the CPA was enacted had raised tension among policy advocates, as it clearly outpaced crucial legislations like the Reproductive Health (RH) Bill and the Freedom of Information Bill.
Legislators like Senator Alan Cayetano were quick to defend themselves, explaining that anti-CPA reactions “weren’t passionately brought up during discussion.” However, Senator Vicente Sotto III’s admission that he inserted the online libel provision, is beyond defense,
During the interpellation of the CPA’s bill version, Kabataan Partylist Rep. Raymond Palatino argued that key provisions in the CPA are already enshrined in existing laws (see sidebar 2), suggesting instead to amend previous laws than legislate a new one. These motions however, were rejected.
While legislators say that the contentious provisions that were successfully inserted in RA 10175 are results of a clear oversight, Malacañang tells a different story. Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa even assured the public that the law was “carefully reviewed” before it was signed by Aquino.
Clearly, Aquino has signed RA 10175 into law with full knowledge of its ramifications on civil liberties, verifying fears that the passage of the new law is deliberate, rather than being a mere oversight.
The CPA’s extensive coverage inevitably drew a wide range of opponents, from media outfits to legal institutions, from progressive groups to the common netizen. Today, the internet, the very platform the CPA seeks to regulate, has instantly become a virtual battlefield where internet warriors determined to repeal the law unleash their offensives—status, tweets, blog entries, memes and online petitions.
Almost all parts of the CPA has been lifted in toto from the 2001 Budapest Convention on Cybercrime, except for the provisions on libel and the highly contentious Section 19, which grants the Department of Justice (DOJ) excessive power over the Internet, says ACT Teachers Partylist Rep. Antonio Tinio.
Section 19 states, “When a computer data is prima facie found to be in violation of the provisions of this Act, the DOJ shall issue an order to restrict or block access to such computer data.”
“This effectively gives DOJ total control of the Internet in the Philippines. Once the DOJ realizes this new power and uses this provision to take down dissident websites – that would be the death of Internet freedom as we know it,” says Palatino, who dubbed the CPA as “e-Martial Law.”
Indeed, a law that purposefully regulates the free exchange of ideas and discourse over the web presents a vivid threat to anyone who resorts to the internet for daily conversations and interactions, even sending a “chilling effect” to journalists, activists and common netizens.
“Censorship will lead to repression once an activist or reform advocate has been labelled a cybercriminal,” says Palatino.
In countries implementing cybercrime laws like China and countries in the Middle East, human rights violations have grown more prevalent but discreet, as information on these violations remain undisclosed even within its borders, Palatino added.
Lawyers and advocates alike have also voiced concerns over CPA’s implementation, which inevitably raises issues on privacy, personal information and security. Section 12, for example, allows real-time collection of traffic data, which in effect legalized online surveillance by government authorities.
With vague and encompassing provisions that infringe on privacy and the freedom of expression, the CPA has morphed from being a crime-busting law aimed at online scammers and hackers to being a censorship law. As blogger and freelance journalist Tonyo Cruz puts it, “When we are in front of our computers, most of us hate it when people look from behind our shoulders. Now, Aquino’s Cybercrime Law is watching, behind all of us, threatening us with jail time, checking what we do online.”
The ruckus ignited by the CPA illustrates the unavoidable intersection of the virtual and the physical world.
Currently, several online petitions seeking to gather signatures to junk the CPA have circulated in the web. To protest against CPA, a group of hackers calling themselves “Anonymous Philippines” has gone on a “hacking spree,” targeting various government websites including Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System, and Aquino’s own website (president.gov.ph), among others. From online groups and discussion boards to individual social networking accounts, the resistance echoes: repeal the CPA, defend the basic freedom to speech and expression.
Indeed, the broad unity forged against the CPA has snatched the attention of government officials, proving that collective action is far from passé. Solons, for instance, have pledged to amend the law when Congress resumes session come October 8.
However, these online actions – though helpful – harbor the danger of netizens believing that social change is possible through mere “likes,” “reposts,” or “tweets,” Cabbab says. “People must also vent their frustrations through more effective and time-proven means—to the streets,” he adds.
As the CPA polices the internet, it then becomes tactical—and critical—to bring the fight into the world where opposition cannot be silenced by a single click or crackdown of a website. Congress and the Supreme Court cannot be compelled by virtual opposition alone – warm bodies protesting in the streets are still far more valuable.
As boundaries between the real and cyber world blur, the contradictions that govern both realms heighten. And as witnesses to such collision, CPA dissenters are called to look beyond the computer screen and analyze the issue alongside its real world context and ramifications. ●
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