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Philippines Cybercrime Law: who does it really protect?

Clayton Wood is the marketing director and managing partner of TrueLogic, which helps create digital marketing programs for businesses in the US, Australia, and the Philippines.

Philippines Cybercrime Law - who does it really protect?

(Photo credit: GMA News)

It’s been over a month since the Philippines Supreme Court signed the Cybercrime Prevention Act into law. For many people who feel that the law limits free speech in the country, the fight for online freedom of expression rages on. Students, academics, legal professionals, members of the media, and politicians are still rallying to combat the law’s provisions on online libel, which in practice can cripple Filipino netizens’ ability to talk freely.

The act was designed to protect Filipinos from cybercrime, but with its questionable provisions one has to wonder who exactly is this law meant to protect?

Data theft

The Cybercrime Law has been welcomed by the country’s large business outsourcing (BPO) industry as it provides some benefits. That industry – covering things like outsourced phone banking or customer support – employs about 750,000 people in the Philippines. When President Benigno Aquino III first signed the Cybercrime Prevention Act and Data Privacy Act in 2012, the BPO industry supported the two laws. “We’re supportive of data privacy and cybercrime laws. It’s good to have rules and regulations on risks,” said Benedict Hernandez, then president of the Business Processing Association of the Philippines (BPAP). The added protection against cybercrime – such as illegal access and interception of data – is obviously a good thing for those running businesses that depend largely on technology and the internet to function.

But the law isn’t without flaws in this regard. Although the Supreme Court struck down Section 12 of the bill, which empowered law enforcement agencies “with due cause […] to collect or record by technical or electronic means traffic data in real-time associated with specified communications transmitted by means of a computer system,” they still uphold Section 14. This part of the law states that after securing a court warrant, law enforcement authorities can “issue an order requiring any person or service provider to disclose or submit subscribers’ information, traffic data, or relevant data in his/its possession or control.” If abused by authorities, this could force businesses to relinquish sensitive user data and information.

Suppressing the “narrative of the oppressed”

The Cybercrime Law could have a devastating effect on the media and individuals who speak out online due to the libel clause. Senator Tito Sotto – who angered netizens when he plagiarized an American blogger in parts of his speeches, has admitted to proposing the clause, but denied that it had anything to do with retaliating for being the victim of “cyberbullying”. Because of this clause, the Cybercrime Law threatens every Filipino’s right to true freedom of speech on the web.

Anyone found guilty of online libel will be punished more severely than those found guilty of libel in print media. The penalty for print/offline libel ranges from six months to over four years in prison, but the Cybercrime Law increases the maximum penalty for online libel from four years to eight months.

For many journalists and ordinary citizens, the internet is an effective alternative media channel for airing stories that would not have been heard otherwise on traditional or print media. Criminalizing online libel will make it even more difficult to use the internet as a channel of communication and information. One activist group that supports Hacienda Luisita farmworkers is fighting the libel aspect of the law, saying it will suppress the “narrative of the oppressed.” Being less able to speak out or be a whistleblower online will mean “the poor farmworkers are further disenfranchised,” the group said last month.

I do not question the need to protect innocent citizens and businesspeople from cybercrime and cyberbullying. Creating a law for that purpose is a step in the right direction, but the questionable provisions in the current law, especially the online libel clause, is a huge leap backwards for the Philippines.

A different version of that law may have the potential to protect the average citizen, but not in its current state. The European Union, which supports the steps the Philippines government has taken to combat cybercrime, believes that “the [law] will continue to evolve as proposed bills are considered and debated on the floors of both houses of the Congress.” I hope so, too.

Editing by Steven Millward

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