Online libel is a can of worms

It's been more than a year since Noynoy Aquino signed the Cybercrime Prevention Act - a piece of legislation designed to bolster government response to crimes done online, such as hacking and identity theft - into law.

It's been more than a year since it went on limbo, after critics deemed the law a threat to freedom of speech, especially after the revelation of provisions penalizing online libel, and allowing the government to shut down certain websites only on the basis of prima facie evidence. After at least sixteen petitions were filed, and almost everyone on Facebook blackened their profile photos, the Supreme Court issued a TRO - initially for four months from its signing in October, and then on an indefinite basis - suspending its implementation.

Today the Supreme Court finally decided that most of what is now known as the Cybercrime Prevention Law is within the bounds of the constitution.

The only portions of the law deemed otherwise are the "take down" clause, which means law enforcement agencies would need a court order to be able to shut down websites; the provision allowing for real-time monitoring of computer networks; and the provision penalizing "the use of [a] computer system which seek[s] to advertise ... products and services".

Online libel, on the other hand, is deemed partially constitutional. So, in theory, I can still be charged with online libel for a blog entry that I wrote. The penalties remain high: I could be jailed for up to twelve years, as opposed to a maximum of four years for "traditional" libel as stated in the Revised Penal Code. (The logic with the higher penalties is the wider reach of the Internet, as opposed to print or broadcast, means the defamation has a bigger impact.)

However, the Supreme Court said the online libel provision is unconstitutional with regards to persons other than the author of what is deemed libelous. So, in theory, if you liked my blog entry on Facebook, or shared it on Twitter, you cannot be charged with online libel, and you should not face those stiffer penalties.

By all means, this is still a big problem. Libel is a very subjective thing. Let me use myself (and Rainy) as an example again. For libel to exist, according to the Revised Penal Code, I should have four things. I should imply that Rainy, say, kicked a puppy. I should publish said claim on a public forum, whether it's on print or online. I should identify that it's Rainy, and no one else, who kicked a puppy. And I should have malicious intent in publishing that thing.

Now, that could be true. Rainy could have indeed kicked a puppy when she was little. I could have, say, interviewed her childhood friends, who confirmed the story. I could have interviewed the puppy owner, who also confirmed the story. But if Rainy sees it, and thinks her reputation was destroyed by what I wrote, she still could sue me for libel.

Since I wrote it on my blog, rather than on a newspaper, she could sue me for online libel and push for those higher penalties. Six to twelve years in prison, all for saying she kicked a puppy, which happens to be a true story. (It isn't. It's all hypothetical, in case you're confused.)

That leads us to the second problem. On the surface, online libel is there to stop online journalists and bloggers (like me) and anyone with a Facebook account from saying something damaging to another online. In theory, if I told that Rainy-kicked-a-puppy story on a public forum, I can only be sued under the terms of the Revised Penal Code, which means up to four years in jail.

But everything is online now. A video clip of me in that public forum can be uploaded online, and on that basis alone, I can face twelve years in jail. I'm a blogger who occasionally writes about politics; my pieces can be deemed as malicious, and they can land me twelve years in jail.

Now, "traditional" media has slowly begun to expand their presence online. I no longer have to wait for a copy of the Inquirer to arrive at my doorstep to read Conrado de Quiros' column; I can just go online. I no longer have to be near a radio to listen to Ted Failon deliver one of his commentaries; I just have to be on a computer, or a mobile phone, with a good Internet connection and a better pair of earphones. This expansion was made on the pretense of reaching more Filipinos across the globe, and more Filipinos on the go. The provisions on online libel make it harder for these people - people who are, for the most part, versed on which lines they should cross and which lines they shouldn't - to say what they have to say.

Ultimately, the provision on online libel is just a tool that can be used by anyone, and everyone, to stifle one's freedom of speech. Anybody in government, say, can invoke this provision to stop Facebook groups like Pixel Offensive and Showbiz Government from making posts critical of him.  Expressing dissatisfaction with the government - steadily increasing, I must note - can be quashed with two words: online libel.

Noynoy Aquino, in the immediate aftermath of signing the Cybercrime Prevention Law, has expressed his support towards the online libel provision. "Kung parehong libelous ang sinabi mo, dumaan ka sa Internet, ay, siguro libelous pa rin ho ‘yon," he told reporters - a sector that he has had public struggles with, judging from the many times he accused the media of spreading lies rather than reporting the "good news" his administration has to offer - last October 2012.

"What the government wants to do is to stifle dissent," Bayan Muna representative Neri Colmenares told ANC this afternoon. "Siguro nasasaktan na sila sa mga frustration na ine-air ng taumbayan."

To again quote the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, "we now have a president who has openly declared war on his own people."

Online libel, however, will prove to be a headache for the government to implement. With the ubiquity of the Internet nowadays, how exactly do authorities intend to deal with every potential complaint that can be forwarded to them? What are the limitations, if any, that defines online libel as stated in the Cybercrime Prevention Law? Can one Facebook post, whose privacy settings are limited to the poster's friends (although it's still "public" as long as it's three people) lead to a suit? Can, say, Manny Pacquiao sue a boxing website based outside of the Philippines, on the basis that Filipinos in the country can access it? Can, say, Toronto mayor Rob Ford file a case, in the Philippines, versus a Canadian blogger, on the basis that his blog is accessible here?

Online libel is a can of worms, and one that is slowly being opened. We are all in for a messy ride, and you know what messy rides make us do - it makes us noisy, and no amount of asking us to shut up will make us, well, shut up.

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