SC Issues TRO on Cybercrime Law; A Battle Won by Netizens

The Supreme Court (SC) issued a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) against the implementation of Republic Act 10175 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012.

The SC unanimously voted on Tuesday, October 9, to issue a 120-day TRO on the newly implemented Cybercrime Law. Oral arguments are set on January 15, 2013, while the TRO is set to expire on February 2013.

The SC tackled the controversial law in the afternoon of October 2 during an en banc session but failed to issue a TRO. The law was put into effect last October 3, 2012.

Reaction as Law Came to Effect

The Cybercrime Law caused an uproar among many citizen groups and online Filipinos or netizens because of certain provisions. They argued that the provision on online libel, its increased penalties compared to print libel, and online content takedown based on prima facie evidence are threats to freedom of expression.

Civic groups protested online and in streets. Media institutions also expressed disagreement on certain provisions.

The IT-BPO sector that initially lauded the new law was concerned on some insertions. The Business Processing Association of the Philippines (BPAP) said in a statement that, “It is unfortunate that last-minute provisions on libel and freedom of the Internet were inserted into this important bill without the benefit of stakeholder perspective, including ours.” They also voiced out their concerns on provisions on warrantless data collection, which was also said to be a last-minute insertion.

During the course of protests, hacktivists—or hackers against the new law—managed to take down and deface several websites of government agencies since the previous week. The official website of the Philippine government, www.gov.ph, was not spared.

Meanwhile, many Filipino netizens expressed their opposition to the new law through blogs and social networking sites. Blacked out comments and posts in social networks became viral as a form of protest against the Cybercrime Law. Many posted comments, statuses, pictures, and tweets of protests and also changed profile pictures to black as a sign of protest.

Many Filipino netizens posted blacked out comments and posts in social networks as a form of protest to RA 10175.

Black Tuesday’s Silent Protest

In fact, the Philippine Internet Freedom Alliance (PIFA), which is composed of organizations, netizens, and bloggers, staged a silent protest in front of the Supreme Court in Padre Faura Street, Manila last October 2, just in time for the said en banc session of the SC.

The protest, dubbed as “Black Tuesday,” was attended by bloggers, photographers, and other concerned netizens, who wore black shirts and raised black placards with their mouths covered in black tape. Despite the rains, PIFA continued their silent protest, along with some other groups that, on the other hand, loudly protested.

Members of different groups forming the Philippine Internet Freedom Alliance (PIFA) conducted a silent protest in front of the Supreme Court last October 2, a week before the high tribunal issued a TRO. Photo by John Ray Ramos. 

 

Aside from earlier official statements from the group, PIFA also shared their thoughts to SecurityMatters and explained 5 Notable Points on the Cybercrime Law.

#1 It Creates a ‘Cyber Martial Law’ with Actual Prison

Protesters have expressed that the implementation of the Cybercrime Law is a declaration of martial law over Philippine cyberspace.

“The Cybercrime Law is undemocratic and has negative implications on the right to free speech and privacy. The Cybercrime Law is testing our country – whether we’re truly a democracy or just a democracy on paper. It is then fitting that some have dubbed it ‘cyber martial law’,” said Red Tani, president of Filipino Freethinkers, an organization part of PIFA, in an official statement.

Ayeen Karunungan of Dakila – Philippine Collective for Modern Heroism, an artist group affiliated to PIFA, said that, “It is ironic that while we are commemorating the 40th year since the declaration of Martial Law and ‘Never Again’, this law which curtails freedom of speech, has been signed. Real democracy allows the right to free speech as it is fundamental in people’s participation in governance.”

Karunungan also told SecurityMatters that that current version of the Cybercrime Law, particularly the clause on libel, can land bloggers, those engaging in social networks, or netizens up to 12 years in prison.

Meanwhile, Kenneth Keng, also from Filipino Freethinkers disclosed that they consulted lawyers and all agreed that simple participation in social networks can be a criminal offense. “So kahit nasa Facebook ka lang may picture na nagustuhan ka insulting a politician in the upcoming elections for example, makukulong ka. (So even if you’re just on Facebook and there’s a picture insulting a politician that you liked, you will go to jail.)”

#2 It is a Blow to Positive Social Change

Noemi Dado, known online as “Momblogger” from Blogwatch, said to SecurityMatters that, “Internet freedom can bring a lot of social change for social good. A mere discussion can bring change especially if traditional media follows it. [And] there are so many changes for good that can be done in the Internet if we are freely able to express ourselves” Blogwatch is a group of Filipino bloggers and social media users advocating social change and good governance.

Karunungan has this to say to SecurityMatters on the law’s social impact: “Meron itong chilling effect sa mga tao so ibig sabihin yung mga tao matatakot sila na magpahayag ng damdamin nila online and alam naman natin that the Internet and social media has been very powerful and influential sa mga nangyayari ngayon.” (It has chilling effect to the people as they we will be scared to express themselves online, especially now that Internet and social media has been very powerful and influential to current events.)

A protester from PIFA wearing a Guy Fawkes Mask in front of anti-riot police. The protest was peacefully conducted. Photo by John Ray Ramos.

#3 The Law Needs Improvement

Cybercrime Law is necessary but the current version is found to be vague, problematic in its provisions.

Karunungan said to SecurityMatters that the law, in its current version, needs to be amended, especially the provisions on libel. “Alam naman namin na kailangan talaga may cybercrime law. (We know that we really need a cybercrime law).But she stressed that there are also vague items, like libel and cybersex, which need to be improved.

Keng also expressed, “Right now we want the Supreme Court to issue a TRO against the law to stop its implementation. Pero in the future after that, we want to repeal, we want a new law fast. And sana mainvite naman ang mga stakeholders. (And we wish that stakeholders would be invited).

Lawmakers and even the Palace, on the other hand, also expressed their openness to reforms.

#4 The Law Was Made Without Consulting Online Stakeholders

PIFA, as an alliance of Internet stakeholders, indicated that there was no consultation with online activists when the law was formulated.

Ime Morales, co-founder of Freelance Writers’ Guild of the Philippines, said in a statement that, “As members of the online community, we are stakeholders in the passage of the law. We do not want the Data Privacy Act and the Cybercrime Prevention Act to be amended just so our stakes can be inserted in either. A fresh start is required in order to embrace the online community,”

According to them, the nature of the law particularly on libel is questionable as the nature of online discourse, especially on social media is complex in nature and the law fails to understand it.

Keng also said that, “Marami kaming mga bloggers and groups dito pero it seems na yung gobyerno doesn’t think that we’re important enough to be consulted for a public hearing. (There are many of us, bloggers and groups, but it seems that the government doesn’t think that we’re important enough to be consulted for a public hearing.)”

Dado expressed, “I wish to educate our legislators and politicians about Internet. Maybe they don’t know what it is. They don’t know how to filter social media noise.”

#5 Cyber Law Threatens Rather than Secures

SecurityMatters asked them whether they think the law secures or threatens.

“It threatens. It absolutely threatens. The cyber security law is a cyber martial law that threatens the freedom of speech of all individuals who go online,” answered Keng.

Karunungan also expressed that it threatens and said, “Nakakatakot talaga na sa konting retweet mo or like mo or share mo ng damdamin mo pwede ka nang makulong at hindi yun ang democracy na ipinagmamayabang natin na meron tayo. (It is scary that a simple ‘retweet,’ ‘like,’ or ‘share’ of your emotions can land you in jail. And that is not the democracy that we are proud of that we have.)”

Dado also said that the law threatens. “How can it secure? Can you just imagine that you’re typing there and somebody’s at your back watching you type? What if they check my bank records? I don’t know if it’s going to be protected. I don’t like to be under surveillance for 24 hours,” she explained.

Activist and performing artist Carlos Celdran joins the PIFA protest in front of Supreme Court. Photo by John Ray Ramos.

Far From Over

Meanwhile, Bawal Mag-Shoot Dito (BMSD), a group of photographers and also part of PIFA, has welcomed the newly issued TRO.

Mel Cortez, founder of BMSD said, “Umeepekto na ang pagtutol ng mga mamamayan. (The resistance of netizens are already taking effect.)” He also noted that politicians and public officials are noticing that there is really something wrong with the law. He added that lawmakers cannot ignore the protests, especially when election period is near.

Cortez expressed that BMSD will conduct a nationwide photowalk or a protest against the Cybercrime Law. BMSD members and others who oppose the Cybercrime Law will stage the said protest in public parks, like Luneta, around the country.

PIFA also has issued a statement lauding the SC for the issuance of the TRO. They also asked lawmakers to start crafting a new law with the participation of online stakeholders.

With what they consider a temporary victory, PIFA invites all netizens to “consistently participate in its efforts to pressure our legislators to repeal RA 10175.”

The stopping of the new Cybercrime Law can be considered as a victory by netizens, as online and public outcry has made lawmakers and public officials enter debate over the issue and pushed them into action. With the issuance of the TRO, it is expected that the heated debate and outcry on the Cybercrime Law will temporarily die down. But protests and vigilance over the Internet and in public will remain in terms of protecting online freedom. And it seems it would still take time for the Cybercrime Law to be reformulated and implemented, to curtail abuses over cyberspace. So for now, the policing of cyberspace is in the hands and the responsibility of netizens.

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