Free speech advocates attack new cybercrime law in Philippines

Critics say that it gives the Philippine government 'awesome powers' to rein in dissent and is equivalent to the 'Great Firewall of China'

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 October, 2012, 4:25am

A new cybercrime law due to roll out this week has angered free speech advocates who claim that it could empower the Philippine government to muzzle dissent with its own version of the "Great Firewall of China".

But supporters say the law, which could see people jailed for 12 years for posting defamatory comments on Facebook or Twitter, aims to tackle a range of online crimes, including pornography, hacking, identity theft and spamming. The Cybercrime Act allows authorities to collect without a warrant "traffic data in real time" from any personal user accounts on social media and listen in on voice/video applications, such as Skype, without a warrant. If a warrant is issued, it can be done by any judge.

In contrast, anti-terrorism laws require a Court of Appeals judge to approve the collection of such data.

Jose Jesus Disini, a University of the Philippines law professor who is among five separate petitioners taking action before the Supreme Court to have the law revoked or sections repealed, said the act gives the secretary of justice "awesome powers" to block access to an entire website indefinitely. That could technically be done with a single complaint, he said.

"When you add up all the requests together [for blocking content from Philippine users] - whether the requests involve copyright or trademark infringement, entire domain names, or any other kind of violation of Philippine law, then the sum is equivalent to the 'Great Firewall of China'," he said referring to measures by Beijing to censor content it deems inappropriate.

Tonyo Cruz, a well-known blogger, branded the law "the president's scandal", coincidentally signed by President Benigno Aquino on the eve of the 40th anniversary of Ferdinand Marcos's military rule.

Despite the outcry, the presidential palace says it is necessary. Aquino's spokesman, Edwin Lacierda, said that "freedom of expression is not absolute" and "the Cybercrime Act sought to attach responsibilities in cyberspace".

Since Marcos was deposed by a popular revolt in 1986, the Philippines has had a raucous democracy, a free-wheeling press and the widespread use of the internet has turned millions into political commentators.

Many are annoyed by a small section of the law covering online libel, which was included without public hearings by Congress.

Merely liking and sharing on Facebook or retweeting on Twitter allegedly libellous content could be punished with up to 12 years in jail, said another petitioner Harry Roque, who is a human rights lawyer.

Senator Vicente Sotto inserted the controversial section. He said he did it "because I believe in it and I don't think there's any additional harm".

Sotto was recently the butt of online jokes and harsh criticism after three speeches he delivered at the Senate were found to have plagiarised from five bloggers and from a speech of the late US senator Robert Kennedy.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse