Internet freedom costly for Filipinos, study says

by Jojo Malig, ABS-CBNnews.com

Posted at Oct 04 2013 02:13 AM | Updated as of Oct 04 2013 02:42 PM

The Philippines placed 10th among 60 countries worldwide on the Freedom on the Net 2013 report. Image courtesy of Freedom House

Study blames PLDT's 'de facto monopoly' for low internet penetration, high broadband costs

MANILA - Thanks to netizens who opposed the controversial anti-cybercrime law, internet in the Philippines remains one of the freest in the world, according to a new study released Thursday by US-based group Freedom House.

The Philippines ranks 10th worldwide in the "Freedom on the Net 2013" report, which identifies key trends in internet freedom and digital media in 60 countries.

Iceland topped the list, followed by Estonia, Germany, the United States, Australia, France, Japan, Hungary, Italy, and United Kingdom.

Iran placed at the bottom.

The study evaluates countries based on obstacles to access, limits on content, and violations of user rights.

Freedom House, the non-governmental organization behind the study, said the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 would have seriously affected internet freedom in the Philippines.

The controversial law, which has been suspended by the Supreme Court, would allow authorities to block online content without a warrant, facilitate government surveillance, and punish online libel with up to 12 years imprisonment.

"While the new anti-cybercrime act remains on hold, there is no systematic government censorship of online content, and internet users in the Philippines enjoy unrestricted access to both domestic and international sources of information," the study said.

It added that The OpenNet Initiative found no evidence of internet censorship by government, although monitoring and filtering activities in the workplace have been reported in the country.

The study also cited the Magna Carta for Philippine Internet Freedom bill filed by Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago in the Senate and Pangasinan Rep. Kimi Cojuangco in the lower House that seeks to protect the rights of Filipinos in cyberspace, while defining and penalizing cybercrimes.

If passed, the bill will repeal the controversial Cybercrime Prevention Act.

The study said it has not received reports of officials putting pressure on online journalists or bloggers to delete content when it is critical of the authorities.

"However, many news websites are online versions of traditional media which self-censor due to the level of violence against journalists in the Philippines," it added.

It mentioned that libel in the country is punishable by fines and imprisonment under the Revised Penal Code.

"This has historically been challenging to prove in online cases which lack a physical place of publication—one of the requirements for an offline prosecution—and in 2007, a Department of Justice resolution established that Articles 353 and 360 of the Revised Penal Code covering libel do not apply to statements posted on websites," the study said.

Despite the DOJ resolution, attempts continue to prosecute online libel.

"The Philippine blogosphere is rich and thriving. Both state and non-state actors actively use the internet as a platform to discuss politics, especially during elections," the study said. "There have been no prominent cases reported of attacks on bloggers for online expression, though some fear that may change as internet penetration grows and more people turn to web-based news sources."

It said there are no restrictions on anonymous communication in the country. "The government does not require the registration of user information prior to logging online or subscribing to internet and mobile phone services, especially since prepaid services are widely available, even in small neighborhood stores."

Low internet penetration rate

The study said despite nearly unrestricted access to the internet in the country, only 36% of an estimated 96 million Filipinos were connected online in 2012.

It said the Philippines experienced very low internet penetration until the government deregulated the industry in the 1990s and allowed new players to compete with the dominant Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. (PLDT).

"Recent mergers and acquisitions, however, mean PLDT controls 70 percent of the market and still lacks the kind of competition that would spur it to innovate or become more efficient for the end user," it said.

The study added aside from PLDT's "de facto monopoly," lack of infrastructure and bureaucratic government regulation continue to hamper internet penetration.

Although mobile phone use is more widespread in the country, it has yet to result in higher mobile internet use.

"Usage is concentrated in urban areas, with rural areas largely underserved," the study said. "A significant number of users still rely on dial-up connections, as just two percent of the population had fixed broadband subscriptions in 2012."

It added that steep broadband subscription fees stand in the way of higher penetration in the country.

"In 2013, even as legislators urged telecoms to cut rates by 50 percent in order to promote universal access, the average cost of broadband subscriptions remained between $7 and $19 a month," it said.

"An industry monopoly has contributed to these inflated costs," the study said.