Philippine cybercrime law must protect, not harass, citizens

We need law and order in cyberspace, but it must not be used to stifle freedom of expression and intimidate citizens.

Now that the massive public outcry against Republic Act 10175, otherwise known as the Cybercrime Law, has died down a bit--by virtue of a TRO (temporary restraining order) issued by the Supreme Court --I'd like to make a few comments on the controversial legislation which I've followed over the course of its decade-long journey.

Let me state at the outset that I'm in favor of the Cybercrime Law, but not in its current form. I think this is the same position taken by most local ICT stakeholders. 

I like what Genny Marcial, external relations director of the Business Processing Association of the Philippines (BPAP), told me on the same day the high tribunal issued the 120-day TRO. Marcial said despite the fact that BPAP led the lobbying for the passage of the law, the trade group was nonetheless pleased that the measure was suspended pending the final determination of its constitutionality.  

Like the rest of the industry, she said BPAP was also quite surprised that the version approved by Congress was not the same law which they had supported during the early stages of its drafting.

PH-CERT, the organization of Internet security professionals in the country, also put out a press statement that basically said the same thing. It was a different version of Cybercrime Law, they said. Both groups said the provision on Internet libel shouldn't have been included in the final version of the law. 

If I remember it right, online libel was not at all mentioned when the proposed legislation was first broached about 10 years ago. It only cropped up in the House of Representatives when the chamber approved this year its version of the bill containing the contentious provision, as I still recall Kabataan Party-list representative Raymond Palatino raising a howl about this.

Thus, contrary to most news and blog accounts, it was not the bicameral conference which inserted the provision in the reconciled version of the bill. What the panel did was to increase the penalty for online libel a degree higher compared to traditional libel. The bicam adopted this on the urgings of Sen. Edgardo Angara, who argued that a heavier punishment should be meted out on Internet libel because of its global nature.

What's also interesting in this controversy is that the ICTO (Information and Communications Technology Office), despite being the government's main ICT agency, has questions, too, on the law.

I've spoken to ICTO executive director, Louis Casambre, and deputy executive director, Monchito Ibrahim, who both told me that they were also wondering about the designation of the ICTO as the lead agency in the Cybercrime Investigation and Coordinating Center (CICC), as provided in the law.

The officials pointed out that the ICTO is a policy-making body concerned about only cybersecurity and not on cybercrime, which is basically investigative and enforcement work. Therefore, ICTO has no place in the CICC as it practically involves police duties. 

Casambre and Ibrahim said the original agency proposed in the early draft of the bill was the National Cybersecurity Coordinating Council (NCCC). It was, however, strangely changed into the CICC during the bicam meeting.  

No doubt, we need a law on cybercrime to address the new breed of crimes spawned by the Internet such as online pornography and cyber prostitution. I remember about a decade ago when the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) had to let go of the infamous hacker responsible for the deadly "I love you" virus. 

In the years that I followed, I also witnessed how Palmer Mallari, lead agent of the NBI's Anti-Computer Crimes Division, became frustrated in the numerous cybercrime forums because of the lack of an enabling law against cybercrime.

Let me say it again--we need law and order in cyberspace. However, it must not be used to stifle freedom of expression and to harass people. We should, and must, always fight any attempt of the State to abuse its immense powers against hapless citizens.