Cybercrime law mars PH net freedom – global report
MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines has the freest Internet in Southeast Asia, but the passage of the controversial anti-cybercrime law marred its “excellent” record.
A report of US-based Freedom House said Internet freedom in the Philippines slightly declined primarily because of the law passed last year.
The Philippines retained its “free” status – the only Southeast Asian country in the category – but its "freedom on the net score" dropped from 23 last year to 25 in this year's report.
In its Freedom on the Net 2013 report, Freedom House called the Cybercrime Prevention Act “notorious, restrictive, and punitive.”
“In this year’s most significant development, the 2012 Cybercrime Prevention Act was passed into law in September, threatening to infringe on the Philippines’ otherwise open online environment by introducing content restrictions that even a government lawyer admitted are unconstitutional,” said the report released on Thursday, October 3.
The report noted that the law allows authorities to block online content without a warrant, facilitate government surveillance, and punish online libel with up to 12 years’ imprisonment.
“People in the Philippines enjoy nearly unrestricted access to the Internet …. This excellent record was marred in September 2012 by the passage of an anti-cybercrime law boosting official powers to censor and monitor Internet users without judicial oversight.”
The implementation of the law is put on hold after the Supreme Court indefinitely extended a temporary restraining order (TRO). Fifteen petitions were filed against the anti-cybercrime law.
Various petitioners – bloggers, netizens, human rights groups, journalists, political parties, lawyers, and members of the academe – said the law violates freedom of expression and freedom of speech, and gives the government too much power over Internet users. Rappler was among the groups that took a stand against the law.
Freedom House credited civil society activism for helping suspend the law’s implementation but said the “law’s status going forward is unclear.”
The report said the reaction to the law “was encouraging, if full of apparent contradictions.”
“The act’s own sponsor, Sen Edgardo Angara, stated that he would amend it to require a court order in support of content restrictions ….. Meanwhile, Sen Miriam Defensor Santiago filed a rival bill with Congress that, if passed, would repeal the act.”
Santiago has filed the Magna Carta for Philippine Internet Freedom (MCPIF) Bill, which she said provides for court proceedings in cases where websites or networks are to be taken down and prohibits censorship of content without a court order. The bill was a crowdsourced measure aimed at protecting the rights and freedoms of Filipino netizens while defining and penalizing cybercrimes.
“It is not clear how much support Santiago’s bill may attract, and passing a bill in the Philippines can take months or even years,” Freedom House said.
The report said that as of March 2013, 8 other bills in the Senate called for regulation of online content related to child pornography, gambling and phishing, “which could add to overbroad restrictions on cybercrime.”
Freedom on the Net 2013 identifies key trends in Internet freedom in 60 countries, and evaluates each country based on obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights. Freedom House is a non-governmental organization dedicated to promoting free institutions worldwide.
PH blogosphere rich, thriving
Despite the passage of the law, the report said there is no systematic government censorship of online content in the Philippines, and Internet users enjoy unrestricted access to sources of information and to Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs.
“There have been no reports of officials putting pressure on online journalists or bloggers to delete content when it is critical of the authorities.”
It added: “The Philippine blogosphere is rich and thriving. Both state and non-state actors actively use the Internet as a platform to discuss politics, especially during elections. Online protests against the Cybercrime Prevention Act were common for several months before and after the law was passed, with individuals blacking out their profile pictures on social networks.”
The report also made the following observations on Philippine cyberspace:
- No restrictions on anonymous communication
- No government requirement to register user information prior to logging online or subscribing to Internet and mobile phone services
- No reports of politically motivated incidents of technical violence or cyberattacks by the government on private individuals (but the Philippine chapter of the group Anonymous attacked government and privately owned websites)
Digital divide, industry monopoly
While it welcomed the relatively free regulatory environment, Freedom House said “steep broadband subscription fees” and an industry monopoly remain obstacles to access in the Philippines.
Internet penetration in the Philippines was at 36% in 2012, with only 2% of the population having fixed broadband subscriptions.
Here were trends in Internet and mobile access:
- Mobile phone subscriptions increased, reaching 107% penetration in 2012, indicating some users have more than one device.
- SMS is hugely popular for 2G cell phone users since mid-2000s.
- Penetration of 3G devices with Internet access remains low at 11% in 2012.
- Globe Telecommunications and Smart Communications began expanding 4G LTE coverage outside Metro Manila in early 2013.
- Smart was reportedly testing to improve mobile data speeds.
- Government is testing TV white space technologies, which “tap previously unused frequencies and overcome physical obstacles like concrete. or dense foliage,” to increase connectivity in poor rural areas.
Yet the report noted that industry monopoly contributed to high costs of broadband subscriptions.
“The rivalry has not resulted in the kind of competition which reduces costs and increases efficiency for the end user. Instead, Smart and Globe have been mired in negotiations over interconnecting their networks for several years, which has also delayed the development of broadband services in many areas.”
The report also recommended that government streamline the “highly bureaucratic” institutions governing the ICT sector. It said agencies with ambiguous and overlapping functions slow the pace of development.
“[President Aquino] established an Information and Communications Technology Office under the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) tasked with conducting research, development and capacity-building in the ICT industry.
“However, the division of labor between this office and the Department of Transportation and Communications, which also deals with ICT-related communications, as well as the National Computer Center and Telecommunications Office, was hard to perceive.” – Rappler.com