Internet coup, Part 2

Last week, I wrote about an attempt by repressive regimes and some telecommunications companies to exert control over the Internet. As it turns out, we didn’t have to look very far to find our own Internet coup here at home, masquerading as a law against cybercrime.

Signed by President Benigno Aquino III last month, the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 imposes penalties on offenses such as hacking, denial-of-service and virus attacks, cyber squatting, identity theft, computer fraud, child pornography and cybersex.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there.

Among its most odious aspects is a provision that extends the offense of libel to acts “committed through a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future.”

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines notes that this “broadens the scope of a libel law so antiquated and draconian that the United Nations Human Rights Council itself declared it excessive and called on the Philippine government to review the law with the end of decriminalizing libel.”

The law that the NUJP refers to is the Revised Penal Code, which was passed in 1930, well before the Internet was invented. The old law prohibits libel by “means of writing, printing, lithography, engraving, radio, phonograph, painting, theatrical exhibition, cinematographic exhibition, or any similar means” and punishes it with imprisonment of six months and one day, to four years and two months.

In “updating” this law, however, lawmakers imposed even harsher penalties on libel committed on the Internet, with jail time of six years and one day to a maximum of 12 years. Thus, while more enlightened societies recognize libel as a civil, rather than a criminal offense, we are threatening people with even longer jail sentences.

The immediate upshot of this is that bloggers who do not have the financial resources to mount a vigorous legal defense would be punished much more harshly than their counterparts in the traditional media for the same offense.

The more likely outcome, however, is that even journalists will be prosecuted under the new and more draconian law, since most media organizations also post their content on the Web.

Oddly, the NUJP said, the libel clause was not part of bill approved by the Senate but “suddenly appeared” in the version signed by the President, indicating that the last-minute insertion was not subject to consultations or debate.

Over the weekend, Senator Vicente Sotto III, who recently complained about the online “bullying” he suffered at the hands of bloggers over allegations that he plagiarized portions of his privilege speeches, admitted to inserting the clause into the new law.

“Yes I did it,” Sotto was quoted as telling Interaksyon. “I inserted the provision on libel because I believe in it and I don’t think there’s any additional harm.”

The senator may derive some satisfaction about getting even with his online critics, but the real harm he has caused and the price we must all pay is a diminution of our constitutionally guaranteed right to free expression.

Another alarming feature of the Cybercrime Prevention Act is Section 19, which allows the Justice Department to block access to “computer data”—which can be interpreted to mean any Web site—that it deems to be violating the law. The law doesn’t require the Justice Department to obtain a court order to shut down a Web site, but merely a “prima facie” finding against it.

There are also privacy issues. The new law allows law enforcement agencies to monitor traffic data and compels service providers to help them do it.

Given these concerns, it’s no surprise that the constitutionality of the new law has already been challenged in court through five separate petitions. Some lawmakers have also promised to amend the law to remove its objectionable provisions.

Hackers, on the other hand, have taken a more visceral approach. Last week, they defaced a string of government and institutional Web sites to protest the new law.

Amid all this, assurances from the Justice Department that our constitutional rights will be protected ring hollow, coming as they do from an administration that promises openness and transparency but delivers exactly the opposite by way of repressive legislation. We can only hope that the Supreme Court sees through this patent violation of free speech rights and sets things right.

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