Cybercrime Law hikes penalties for netizens, kills internet freedom; makes DOJ ‘internet superpower’

BLOGGERS, netizens and lawmakers allayed fears on the increased penalty for crimes done with the aid of computer systems and provisions that could lead to Internet censorship and website takedowns in the newly-passed Republic Act No. 10175 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012.

In a roundtable discussion organized by Kabataan Partylist on September 19, various stakeholders expressed alarm over the new law’s threat not only to Internet freedom, but also to essential civil liberties including the freedom of speech and expression.

“The Cybercrime Law was enacted to ward off hacking, identity theft, data manipulation, and cybersex. But the insertion of provisions regarding online libel has totally changed the landscape,” said Kabataan Partylist Rep. Raymond Palatino.

In the roundtable discussion, ACT Teachers Partylist Rep. Antonio Tinio revealed that online libel and other contentious provisions in RA 10175 did not undergo deliberations in both chambers of Congress, and were inserted during the bicameral conference for the bill.

Tinio explained that the original bills filed in Congress were similar, as all were lifted in toto from the 2001 Budapest Convention on Cybercrime drawn by the Council of Europe. “However, the Budapest Convention does not contain any libel provisions. Such portions were added by the bicameral conference,” Tinio added.

DOJ’s all-encompassing power over Philippine web

Meanwhile, Atty. Jose Jesus Disini Jr., a technology law expert, also pointed out that Section 19 of RA 10175 also effectively makes the Department of Justice an all-encompassing “Internet superpower.”

Section 19 states, “When a computer data is prima facie found to be in violation of the provisions of this Act, the DOJ shall issue an order to restrict or block access to such computer data.”

Disini explained that under such provision, the DOJ can take down websites that it suspects – upon initial observation – to be violating RA 10175.

“This effectively gives DOJ total control of the Internet in the Philippines. As only prima facie evidence is needed, the new law has done away with due process. Once the DOJ realizes this new power and uses this provision to take down dissident websites – that would be the death of Internet freedom as we know it,” Palatino said.

Worse than SOPA, PIPA

With Section 19, the Cybercrime Prevention Law has become far worse than the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA) and the “Protect IP Act” (PIPA), that were pushed in the US Congress earlier this year but failed to prosper, according to the Computer Professionals Union (CPU).

CPU explained that Section 19 will have a “chilling impact” to bloggers, online journalists, advocacy groups and normal netizens, as any website can be shut down with accusations of infringement without due process.

For his part, Palatino explained that online censorship under Section 19 is more encompassing than traditional censorship. “If for example, an online article is said to be libellous, DOJ may order the total shutdown of its host domain, effectively censoring not just the article in question, but also other articles in that site – a clear violation of the constitutional right to free speech.”

“And what about posts on Facebook and tweets? If some of those posts are found violating RA 10175, DOJ can theoretically block access not only to the posts in question, but to the whole social networking site,” Palatino said.

Greater punishment for cybercrimes

A provision in the Cybercrime Prevention Law also effectively raises the punishment for crimes committed with the aid of computer systems.

Section 6 of RA 10175 states, “All crimes defined and penalized by the Revised Penal Code, as amended, and special laws, if committed by, through and with the use of information and communications technologies shall be covered by the relevant provisions of this Act, provided that the penalty to be imposed shall be one degree higher than that provided for by the Revised Penal Code, as amended, and special laws, as the case may be.”

To illustrate, Disini explained that a person who commits crimes such as theft and kidnapping with the aid of ICT may get six to to 30 more years in jail than those committing the same crimes without the use of computers and ICT.

“If a criminal uses e-mail to ask for ransom in a kidnapping, it would result to a longer prison sentence than if the criminal sent actual letters,” Disini said.

Similarly, committing online libel will result to longer prison sentences, Disini said. The penalty for printed libel under the Revised Penal Code is only six months to four years. However, applying the “one degree higher” clause in RA 10175 when the libel is committed online, the penalty is raised to six to 12 years.

“The new law was seemingly drafted with the mindset that crimes committed online is graver than those committed in the real world. This poses a serious threat to online journalists and bloggers. Due to the vague provisions in RA 10175, even commenters and those that retweet libellous materials can also be incriminated,” Palatino said.

Petition for prohibition

Kabataan Partylist is mulling to file a petition for prohibition against RA 10175 to the Supreme Court in the coming days.

According to Atty. James Mark Terry Ridon, president and general counsel of Kabataan Partylist, the youth group is set to challenge RA 10175 in the Supreme Court. “Several provisions in this law are clearly unconstitutional. We need to really challenge this in the high tribunal,” Ridon said.

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to file it before the new law takes effect,” Ridon added.

RA 10175 is set to take effect on the first week of October.

“Apart from filing legal remedies, we need to raise public awareness on this issue. The government is taking our Internet freedom. There is an urgent call for us to reclaim it,” Palatino said.

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