Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Who's Bullying Who

The Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 or Republic Act No 10175 which was just recently signed into law by President Noynoy Aquino is now causing a growing storm of controversy both on cyberspace and outside it, the breadth and ferocity of which certainly caught the government by surprise.  The fact that MalacaƱang had been forced to speak up in response to the multiple legal challenges already filed against the new law in the Supreme Court and  the rising clamor from many sectors of Philippine society for certain portions of that particular law (specifically those dealing with criminal penalties for online libel) to be either removed or amended only proves, in my view, how cavalier and hasty if not capricious it had been in allowing this new edict to become law without really thoroughly studying its legal and moral ramifications beforehand.

Senator Francis Escudero, in a recent media interview, made the staggering admission that he and many of his colleagues in the Senate had failed to take notice that the provisions on online libel contained in the then proposed bill may be legally, if not also morally, questionable when they approved it.  He has promised to look for ways to amend or "tweak" the new law specifically to decriminalize the libel aspect of it although the civil liability portion may be retained.  Senator Alan Peter Cayetano also plans to file a similar bill in the Senate that would address the same issue.

How such presumably astute legal minds could not have seen the defects in this law when it was reported out by the congressional committee that studied it and when the same was discussed in the bicameral conference committee that hammered the final version of the bill that became the law is a fact that simply strikes me as beyond belief.  It appears now that only Senator Teofisto Guingona, who filed the only dissenting vote in the final voting for the bill in the Senate and who now is one of the parties formally questioning provisions of the new law in the Supreme Court, may have been the only prescient one who was able to recognize the then proposed law as legally objectionable at that time.

And what about Senator Tito Sotto who has virtually admitted that he and another unnamed senator had a hand in the insertion of the criminal penalties for online libel in R.A. 10175?  Perhaps he felt that this was his way of finally getting even with "cyber-bullies" after being recently clobbered with accusations on the internet  that he had plagiarized sections of a privilege speech opposing the Reproductive Health Bill now pending before Congress, accusations that even fellow Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago has averred has proper basis and something that Senator Sotto should have admitted and apologized for.

Legal experts have also questioned other aspects of the new law that they say may be in violation of  the constitutional guarantees on free speech, privacy of communication and the equal protection of laws.  There is also fear that the unclear and ambivalent phrasing of the new law, in the absence of  proper implementing rules and guidelines, may lead to abuse on the part of a Department of Justice who may use its expanded powers under the new law to arbitrarily restrict or block access to internet data or websites under the mere justification that "prima facie" evidence exists of a violation of the law.

I cannot understand why the Aquino administration has allowed the passage of this ill advised and patently oppressive law.  It has portrayed itself, from the moment it took power, as a government based on transparency and accountability, one where the people are the "boss" of even the highest officials of the land.  The president is a man whose father had suffered greatly from political oppression and had even died because of it while his mother had led a popular uprising that restored democracy and freedom to this country.

In a world where the conventional or traditional news media which used to be the main force that molded and shaped public opinion has become supplanted by technology that has given ordinary men and women the tools and the capability to become not only global communicators but also participants in a multi-lingual dialogue that crosses continents and time zones, the internet has become the great equalizer. It has helped redefine the way we communicate, exchange information and view the world and the universe.  In an increasingly globalized society where the individual is in constant fear of danger of losing his own identity to that of the anonymous herd, it has evened out the odds and has given a voice and a global presence to those who used to be voiceless and disenfranchised.

Of course, the internet and cyberspace has its dark and unsavory side.  The free, unrestricted and unregulated nature of the Web can make it a veritable minefield for innocent, vulnerable or susceptible minds but for governments to impose some kind of control, supervision or censorship over it or the access to it is to  basically destroy the very principle that makes it work and what has made it the most far reaching and life-changing technological advancement of our times.

Cyber-bullying, pornography and all the other undesirable spillovers of widespread internet access are a troubling reality yet they are not a justification to throttle or choke Web users.  One does not deal with bad or inaccurate news by killing the hapless messenger.  In the free and unrestrained marketplace of ideas and information that exists in cyberspace, the the responsibility for the determination of what is true, good and useful must ultimately lie upon the judgement of those who choose to troll and immerse themselves in it.  Nobody and no one, whether it be a person, a government or an international or multi-national entity can presume to think and decide for the rest of the world what should be or what should not be allowed in it.

But if experts on internet usage and trends from all over the world are asked today, the trend towards governmental assaults on online freedom seems to be gaining momentum specifically in Asia.  China leads this crackdown by intensifying its war not only against blogging and social media websites but also has expanded its policy to stifle political dissent through blanket censorship, bandwith throttling, mobile phone surveillance and keyword filtering in online search engines.  Pakistan, India, Malaysia and South Korea have also been pointed out as countries where internet use has become more controlled and regulated. The Philippines has, so far, been on their list of Asian countries with the most internet freedom but with the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 this may soon change.

I join the legion of voices raised against R.A. 10175 because it is a flawed law even if I believe that it has its heart and motivation in the right place.  Certainly the the law should look for ways to go after internet users who engage in online identity theft, computer assisted forgery or fraud and cyber squatting or use the Web to promote cyber-sex activities and child pornography.  But the internet remains as the last bastion for the open and free exchange of views and opinions, a medium that provides an infinite variety of forums and soapboxes for anyone anywhere to use and stand on and then rave and rant about anything without fear of reprisal or retribution.  It is in our interest, as believers in the democratic ideal and the continued protection of the fundamental freedom to speak out and be heard, that it should remain so for future generations.

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