Retweets, Facebook 'likes' can be libelous

Posted at 09/27/2012 10:52 PM | Updated as of 09/28/2012 1:29 PM

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) - Retweeting a comment on Twitter or clicking a Facebook "like" button can result in a lawsuit and imprisonment under the anti-cybercrime law's libel provision, a lawyer warned Thursday.

Internet law expert Atty. JJ Disini said one can be sued for a separate libel case if the person republishes potentially libelous content online.

Social media websites such as Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr allow people to republish articles, posts, and content made by others at the touch of a button.

"Just the possibility that something can be read by others, it's considered publication, and can be libelous," said Disini during an online roundtable discussion organized by netizens to discuss the repercussions of Republic Act (RA) 10175 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012.

Disini and 4 other taxpayers have filed a petition for certiorari and prohibition before the Supreme Court regarding RA 10175's Sec. 4 (c) [4], 6, 7, 12, and 19 of the law.

The new law's Sec. 4 (c) [4], which was inserted by Senator Tito Sotto as an amendment in the Senate version of the original proposed legislation, "criminalizes libel, not only on the internet, but also on any other similar means which may be devised in the future.'"

Meanwhile, Sec. 6 raises by one degree higher the penalties provided for by the Revised Penal Code for all crimes committed through and with the use of information and communications.

This means that a person found guilty of Internet libel can result in 2 separate trials for the same offense and a 17-year jail term.

Disini said in an earlier interview on ANC that the new law punishes online libel even more severely than the Revised Penal Code, which only punishes those guilty of libel of up to 4 years in prison.

He added that even old content that can be viewed after the law takes effect October 3 can be cause for a lawsuit.

"If it’s still online today, but published before, it is still covered, punishable. If you didn't delete it, it's still covered," he said earlier Thursday at a forum sponsored by Senator Teofisto "TG" Guingona III, who has also filed a Supreme Court petition against RA 10175.

Guingona, who was the lone senator who opposed the Senate bill on cybercrime, said the new law denies equal protection for people.

"Equal protection means all people of the same class should be treated equally. What happens here in this law: if you violate this law using the computer, committing libel, you are penalized one degree higher," he said.

"Ordinary libel under the revised penal code is punishable with 4 years and 2 months. Cybercrime law says that you are punishable 6-12 years. The only difference is that one used a pen and paper, the other used a computer," he added.

"Hindi pantay-pantay ang trato ng batas. Basically what the law is saying: anybody who uses computers should be punished more. But [the question is] why?" he asked.

'Great Firewall of the Philippines'

Disini also compared Sec. 19 of the law, which authorizes the DOJ to block access to computer data even without a court order, to the "Great Firewall of China" that censors the Internet in the mainland.

"On the whole, the Cybercrime Prevention Act is a good thing. The problems which are being raised now are inconsistencies with our Constitution," he said.

Disini said Section 12 of RA 10175 allows law enforcement agencies to collect real-time electronic traffic data even without a search warrant.

Guingona also said Section 7 of the law raises double jeopardy, or being punished twice for the same offense.

According to RA 10175's Section 7, apart from prosecution under the assailed law, any person charged for the alleged offense covered will not be spared from violations of the Revised Penal Code and other special laws.

Guingona also expressed alarm at the vast powers given to the Secretary of Justice by the law's Section 19.

"When a computer data is found to be in violation of the act, the DOJ will give an order to restrict or block access to such computer data. This is in effect, seizure. You cannot look at it, you cannot have access to this information," he said.

Under the law, websites can be blocked even without a court order, the senator reiterated. "It is based just upon their discretion on when to seize. Not a judge will decide. The secretary of DOJ will decide."

"Naging (she became) judge, jury and executioner ang secretary of justice. This violates the Constitution," Guingona said.

He warned that new law could be prone to abuse.

"There's too much latitude, discretion. Delikado," he said.

Disini, meanwhile, said the law has a chilling effect on people's basic rights that are protected by the Constitution.

"By even thinking of taking down your Facebook page, that's the chilling effect of the law on people. Your freedoms are being curtailed by the heavy penalties," he said.

He added that courts and jails could be swamped by Internet libel cases.

"Kukulangin ang kulungan," he said.