MANILA - Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and her successors will be the most powerful person vis-à-vis the Philippine internet because of the authority given to her by the anti-cybercrime law that allows her to censor websites at will.
Atty. JJ Disini, an internet law expert, said at a journalists' and bloggers' forum on the Cybercrime Prevention Act on Monday that Section 19 of Republic Act 10175 allows the Department of Justice (DOJ) to order any website blocked even without a court review.
The law's so-called "take-down clause" states: "SEC. 19. Restricting or Blocking Access to Computer Data. — 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 said the justice secretary will, in effect, act as an online censor.
"The power is so great," he said in a forum organized by the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines and the Philippine Press Institute.
He compared the authority given to the DOJ chief with the power wielded by Chinese censors who are behind the"Great Firewall of China."
"There is prior restraint," Disini said in explaining how Section 19 violates the Constitution.
Disini also raised concern on other provisions of the law that Aquino signed on September 12.
Section 12 allows law enforcement authorities to monitor, collect, and record Internet and electronic traffic data even without a court warrant.
Section 4C(4) declares that online libel is now considered a cybercrime that can be punished under the Revised Penal Code. Section 6, meanwhile, sets the penalty on Internet libel at "one degree higher" than print libel.
This means that a person found guilty of libelous content on the Internet could spend up to 12 years in prison with no possibility of parole. The person can also be tried separately in another case if the content is printed.
"This is troubling," Disini said, describing RA 10175's restrictive sections as unprecedented. "There is a cause for concern."
"At no time in Philippine law has (something similar like this) has been enacted," he added.
He said this will have a chilling effect on people, who will be discouraged from exercising their Constitutional rights including free speech.
Disini cited a 2008 ruling by the Supreme Court (Chavez v. Gonzales and NTC) that upheld free speech and freedom of the press against orders and warnings issued by the Justice Secretary Raul Gonzales and the National Telecommunications Commission with regard to the "Hello Garci" recordings.
No takedown, libel clauses in original bill
Kabataan Party Rep. Raymond Palatino told the forum's participants that the website takedown and Internet libel clauses found on RA 10175 were not present in the original lower House bill that a technical working group drafted.
The bill that Aquino signed into law was based on the Senate version authored by Senator Edgardo Angara. The Senate version's libel clause was inserted by Senator Tito Sotto, according to the upper chamber's January 24, 2012 journal.
Palatino also said members of the bicameral conference committee that submitted the final version of the bill signed into law by Aquino have to explain why the libel provision, among other contentious provisions, was inserted.
"They knew what they were doing," he said.
Palatino believes that the anti-cybercrime law was rushed because of intense lobbying by the business process outsourcing (BPO) sector in the country.
No veto from PNoy
Blogger and Internet activist Tonyo Cruz said President Benigno Aquino could have vetoed the bill to reject its onerous provisions.
"He could have came out with a veto statement explaining that any cybercrime prevention bill should be written in such a way that the cybercrimes are explicitly defined, the culprits prosecuted and just punishment rendered – and the innocent spare," he said.
"He could have told Congress that the inclusion of online libel is unacceptable, especially when lawmakers think that netizens are a special class who, when found guilty of libel, should be meted punishment one degree higher than those who commit libel offline. He could have asked Congress for a bill that fight cybercriminals while at the same time protects against unlawful search and seizure," he added.
"President Aquino instead signed the bill into law," Cruz said. "The issue is no longer why Congress made such an unconstitutional bill, but why President Aquino failed to veto it in in accordance with the Constitution."
"He only has himself and his legal advisers to blame for it," he added.
Cruz said the Palace's advice for the public to seek Congress' help for a remedy, "is an insult to the intelligence of the Filipino netizen."
He said the battle will now be waged in the Supreme Court to have the unconstitutional provisions of RA 10175 struck down.