MANILA, Philippines - Malacañang has set a dialogue with stakeholders on the controversial Cybercrime Law even as more groups stepped up calls to repeal the law on fears that it would be used to suppress online freedoms.
A dialogue was scheduled on Oct. 9 to allow all stakeholders to air their concerns about Republic Act 10175, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said.
The place and venue will be announced later, he said.
At the same time, Lacierda said he was not aware if the executive branch could still suspend the implementation of RA 10175 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act since it was “called to implement it.”
“We are the executive branch, we execute. What the legislative branch can do, I understand, and I have seen from some tweets that are going around, is that they can issue a joint resolution. But I don’t know if they intend to do that,” Lacierda said.
Lacierda said he could ask Justice Secretary Leila de Lima if a suspension of the law’s implementation was possible at this time.
Lacierda said so far no case had been filed for online libel or any of the contentious provisions and there were portions that would have to be enforced immediately.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) joined the growing clamor to repeal RA 10175.
NUJP said the new law’s criminal libel provision “and the insidious way it was inserted during the bicameral deliberation – without benefit of public consultation – are direct strikes at the rights to free expression and press freedom.”
A group of bloggers also filed a petition before the Supreme Court questioning the legality of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012.
There are now 10 petitions in the high court, all seeking to repeal or suspend the implementation of the law, a day after it took effect on Wednesday.
There were last-minute petitions to the Supreme Court to stop it. The justices said they will take up the issue next week.
The law is envisioned as a measure against hacking, identity theft, spamming, cybersex and online child pornography.
But citizens and groups who protested on social networking sites, blogs and out in the streets fear politicians will use it to silence critics.
The law contains a provision that says libel – already punishable by up to six years in prison – is also a cybercrime.
It doubles cumulative penalties for online offenses and allows government agencies to search, seize and destroy computer data deemed libelous.
Human rights and media groups have unsuccessfully campaigned for years to downgrade libel from a criminal to a civil offense, saying politicians often use the law to harass journalists and other critics.
“As regards the provisions that are questionable... nobody has filed a case to test this... But, as far as I know, some (lawmakers) have been voicing the suggestion of having a joint resolution to do that. But, again, that’s up to them,” he said.
Lacierda said the higher penalties for online libel were inserted during the bicameral conference committee and it was not yet known who proposed them.
“Now, we are saying this law is not perfect. There’s no irrepealable law or there’s no law that cannot be amended. We’re saying that no law is cast in stone as well. So if there are any objectionable provisions then certainly it’s good for the solons to recognize that and amend the provisions which they feel should be amended,” he said.
Lacierda emphasized the need to address cybercrimes.
“It’s happening. Two weeks ago or a few weeks ago, we just arrested a number of foreign nationals engaged in cybercrimes,” he said.
“They had been using the Philippines as a base of operations to engage in cybercrime primarily because of the absence of any law to address these concerns, this criminal behavior in the Internet. We have that now,” Lacierda said.
Lacierda also cited a UN committee report that said the e-commerce law of the Philippines was not adequate enough to handle or to address criminal behavior in the Internet.
Lacierda said it was not true that the Philippines lacked competent authorities to enforce the law. He said the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) was in fact able to arrest foreign nationals engaged in cybercrime.
“We have people who are monitoring, for instance, that’s the reason why NBI was able to arrest these foreign nationals. Certainly we’ll have to add some more people, technical people to this and that’s the reason why we have the Cybercrime Center to do that,” Lacierda said.
The NBI said minors found guilty of hacking websites might be excused from criminal liability but their parents would have to pay the fine.
Lacierda said the focus of the law itself was on cybercrime and that online libel became an issue because of the insertion of Sen. Vicente Sotto III.
“But throughout, if you look at the deliberations, Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago was asking questions on illegal access, questions on jurisdiction as to how do we arrest, where is the venue for filing these cases on cybercrimes,” he said.
Lacierda urged the public to look closely on the focus of the law against cybercrime.
“Now, insofar as the libel provisions (of that law) are concerned, that’s something that we can seek to amend or people are questioning before the courts and that’s fine with us,” Lacierda said, adding now it’s up to the legislators to take action.
Liking and sharing
The principal author of the law, Sen. Edgardo Angara, said he would file a bill removing the provision of the law imposing higher penalties for libel.
Angara noted the penalty imposed by the cybercrime law is much higher than that under the Revised Penal Code on the same offense.
Angara explained the higher penalty was introduced by the Commission on Information and Communications Technology, now called the Information and Communications Technology Office during the hearings on the bill at the Senate.
He said the rationale given at the time was that crimes committed using the Internet would be fairly easy and far reaching, thus the need to impose higher penalties.
Apart from that provision, the critics also raised a howl over the power given to the Department of Justice to take down websites suspected of violating the law.
Angara said he would file a bill of amendment so that a court order would be needed before a takedown of a website could be done.
He also assured Facebook and Twitter users in the country not to fear the Cybercrime Prevention Act, as the mere act of liking a post will not land them in jail.
According to Angara, liking a page or post on Facebook will not be covered as a crime because it is considered “fair comment.”
“No one is ever charged or convicted for expressing his opinion,” he said, stressing certain apprehensions are exaggerated.
He explained that netizens liking a post, comment or page cannot be liable for libel as long as they are not the authors of the material.
He said they would be treated as audiences and as such, they are not considered participants in the crafting of libelous material.
As far as sharing or retweeting is concerned, Angara said that as a general rule, the concerned users should not be liable for libel under the law.
However, if it is determined that there was conspiracy in the dissemination of the libelous statements, then they could be charged in court.
Still, Angara said Facebook and Twitter users should not worry much because proving conspiracy is difficult.
And if ever one is charged with libel, proving malice as a prerequisite component of the crime is even harder, he said.
“To be a co-conspirator, you have to know who sent it (libelous material) personally and conspired to share it with everyone,” Angara said. “But if you don’t know the author and you just liked the comment he made and shared it, you have no liability.”
Many Facebook and Twitter users and the portals of the main media organizations have replaced their profile pictures with black screens as a protest against the law.
Lacierda, for his part, gave assurance the Aquino administration would uphold civil liberties.
“Your liberties will not be curtailed,” he said.
Lacierda said the Constitution “is clear and uncompromising in the civil liberties it guarantees all our people.”
He said the administration has not pursued any libel cases since President Aquino took office in 2010.
Lacierda also criticized hackers who defaced many government websites in support of the movement against the cybercrime law, saying they engaged in online vandalism.
A government agency, the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), has appealed to hackers to spare its website, saying it is providing information that could help save lives. – With Marvin Sy, Alexis Romero, Evelyn Macairan, Sandy Araneta, Rhodina Villanueva, AP