pop goes the world: cybercrime law

POP GOES THE WORLD   By Jenny Ortuoste for Manila Standard-Today,  20 September 2012, Thursday

Cybercrime Law

Is the new cybercrime law oppressive?

Republic Act 10175, signed by the President into law a week ago, lists “punishable acts” related to hacking, “misuse of devices”, frauds and cons, spam, and pornography (specifically child porn and “cybersex”).

But what alarms bloggers and Internet-based news outlets most is a section that includes libel as one of the punishable “content-related” offenses:

“Section 4 (4) Libel – The unlawful or prohibited acts of libel as defined in Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code, as amended committed through a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future.”

Art. 355 of the RPC punishes “libel by means of writings…” 

Libel is defined in Art. 353 as the “public and malicious imputation of a crime, or of a vice or defect, real or imaginary, or any act, omission, condition, status or circumstance tending to cause the dishonor, discredit, or contempt of a natural or juridical person, or to blacken the memory of one who is dead.”

This definition of libel is rather vague and subjective to begin with; and as usual with lawmakers, as a former congressman explained to me, they add all sorts of catch-all phrases to cover the possible situations that might arise in relation to that law. So libel and defamation cases hinge on either side’s claim of what is “malicious”, “vice”, “defect”, “dishonor”, the definition of keywords such as “privacy,” and so on.

(There is also the matter of the libel provision being inserted after the bill passed the Senate, when this is not allowed after the second reading. That was illegal to begin with.)

As a writer being regularly published in several newspapers, I have to be cognizant of libel laws. As far as I can recall, I was told in j-school at the University of the Philippines that criticism of public figures is not libelous as long as it is directed to their actions in their capacities as such. Bloggers are, in effect, self-published writers, who in the main have not taken a mandatory class in the law of the mass media.

And with the freedom to publish afforded by the Internet, we are treated to a gamut of content, all the way from legitimate news to scurrilous gossip. Public figures and their foibles are among the favorite topics for discussion and comment.

The first case I recall of a blog that was imputed to contain malicious content occurred in 2007 with the anonymously-penned “Chikatime”. It exposed the scandalous behavior of high-profile socialites, who heaved a collective sigh of relief when the blog’s writer stopped posting after a few months.

This was followed in 2008 by the “Gucci Gang” controversy, where Brian Gorrell, blogging from his home country of Australia, regularly posted juicy gossip about Manila’s elite crowd, alleging theft, drugs, and general bad behavior all around. The case taxed legal minds on how to extend existing libel laws into the wild wide world of the Internet.

Is RA 10175 the solution to similar “loose cannon” bloggers”? You have to first catch them, but how do you even police a virtual domain? While RA 10175 provides for the creation of a “Cybercrime Investigation and Coordinating Center” under the Office of the President (Sec. 24) and for the designation of “special cybercrime courts manned by specially trained judges to handle cybercrime cases” (Sec. 21), how long will it take to set all this up and train all these people before the CICC becomes truly effective?

Sec. 27 appropriates “fifty million pesos…annually for the implementation of this Act.” Is that adequate? I don’t think so, given the cost of computer equipment alone. We’re not talking just desktop PCs but server farms.

How about the budget for manpower? How many people do you need straining their eyes on the computer 24/7 to read every blog, Tweet, and Facebook status emanating from the Philippines or written by a Filipino national anywhere on the planet?

How about in the case of libelous material posted anonymously, under an assumed user name? How are you ever going to find out who done it?

Second, you have to prove the posted material was actually libelous and/or defamatory. As I mentioned earlier, that is subject to interpretation and argument by both sides.

Third, what’s to prevent abuse of the law? In this country, money is persuasive and just might convince a band of enforcers to swoop down on the office of a webhost to shut down its servers without due process.

The Internet serves as a bastion of free speech. Dissidents who might be harassed or persecuted use it to promote advocacies, as in the case of the “Arab Spring” nations to turned to Twitter to let the world know about their struggle for freedom. New media has earned a place in legitimate journalism and activism.

Netizens have their own way of dealing with negative and libelous comments in general. They recognize the “haters” and “trolls” for what they are and quite rightly ignore them.

This, however, has not been successful in the instances of true cyberbullying. As I said in my last column, cyberbullying is mean, cruel behavior by online commenters that pushes the person in question to the extreme – to attempt or commit suicide. There isn’t even a provision against that in RA 10175, meaning the law is inadequate right out of the starting gate.

So, back to my original question – is RA 10175 oppressive? Yes, it could be, as with any law or power wielded by any entity. As always, it is up to citizens to be vigilant and make sure that abuse is never perpetrated.

Should we bloggers and social media users worry? Common sense and a working knowledge of libel laws should dictate our actions. Other than that, there shouldn’t be a problem.

But if there is, we bloggers and Tweeters know what to do, and we will do it without fear in order to protect our right to freedom of speech.   *** 

All photos taken with an iPhone 4S.

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