#4: Emergency Post: Philippine-Style Libel in the Internet, Sotto, and the “Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012″

I wrote on my last post that I should write something else other than blogging. Well, this isn’t really about blogging; it’s about the superset of experience in which blogging is situated. It’s about the Internet, it’s about speech, and it’s about power. Any one of the three can be contexts in which the Section 4 of the Republic Act No. 10175, the “Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012″, applies. This is the text of Section 4:

(4) Libel. — The unlawful or prohibited acts of libel as defined in Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code, as amended, committed through a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future.

This is a troublesome, if not shaky, provision. It makes the common citizen nearly powerless in the eyes of the law. Anyone who by the power of the Net can now publish something truthful though damaging without needing mammoth publications to do it for them suddenly has that power swiped off by the inclusion of that clause. When even big presses – those to which “freedom of the press is limited” according to an A.J. Liebling quip – aren’t immune to libel suits from the powerful people running the governmental reins, what more of the ordinary people who just want to air legitimate complaints through the most accessible channel for them to do so – the Internet.

Many Filipinos right now are skilled in using the Internet, thanks to increasing awareness of technology and also to the bustle of Internet cafes around them. For redress, someone need not go to someone else much more powerful, who may not have any incentive to listen if they are themselves erring. Power tends to be corrupting, and if our culture has power as the primary measure of person or the validity of a point, then may God the omnipotent help us. But then, a blog post or a change in Facebook status is all we need.

Sotto & Plagiarism

Senator Tito Sotto was the one hot at putting that libel provision in RA 10175. The supposed intent of the law, according to him, is to make the participants in the entire space of Internet discourse responsible for their words. “Once the cybercrime bill is enacted into law, they will be accountable for what they say or write,” he was quoted in saying. This, after the debacle that took place between him and the Internet citizens who have the keenness and the nerve to write down what they really saw.

What Sotto sees as “cyber-bullying” is nothing more than the consolidated power of sensible bloggers who have their sound views about plagiarism and the medium to make known their views – blogging. As for the intemperate remarks, most of them are only hurtful opinions that happen to be in opposition with what Sotto believes. If you are a believer of the flat-earth theory and someone with a spherical-Earth theory barges into the discussion, then unless you have a thick well-oiled armor, which is unlikely if you are a Filipino who sees criticism of work as the criticism of a person according to Tomas D. Andres, you are very likely to cry that you got scourged and hurt.

In passing, if someone says that Sotto is a dork, or some of his staff are dorks, so be it; plagiarizers are dorks in the academic community, where nearly everything is theoretical or speculative or “irrelevant”, so plagiarizers are bigger dorks when outside the academe, especially in places where the policies of a nation are shaped. (Yea, children from schools who have copy-pasted assignments and aren’t taught that aspect of advanced literacy by your parents and teachers, you are not spared from this indictment.)

Who Wins?

Of course, blogging is not the only medium open to anyone with the Net and a point. There’s also Facebook – and blogging and Facebook go hand in hand because it is possible to promote blogs and get readers from Facebook. Twitter posting is, I believe, still to be perfected, but we have seen public outcries caused by single Twitter posts, so we can see how far one such post can go.

If Facebook is one of the pivotal tools that can bring a brewing revolution to its boil, then anyone who holds power – from pesky government officials to cruel CEOs to teachers who know nothing about their subject matter to aberrant traffic enforcers who deserve to be pummeled in the middle of the road – has a cause for alarm. They’d better have legitimate power, or else the wisdom of crowds, as so-called, will strip them of it.

No one from the Senate may have seen the ferocious potential of RA 10175 to evolve into an instrument of suppressing legitimate speech. According to this site: “In libel cases, the question is not what the writer of an alleged libel means, but what the words used by him mean.” Now that blog posts are covered by the umbrella of libel, how can bloggers defend themselves from someone who deliberately misinterprets their words and then slaps them with libel suits?

It’s strange – and it’s worrisome – that there is no provision for truth in Philippine libel: the statement “Truth cannot be libel” isn’t applicable, anywhere, anytime, in any island of this country since it was founded. Malice is enough, so if I tell you something that is true and happens to ridicule you in the manner of Swift or Juvenal, then your well-paid lawyer can come knocking to my doorstep with a libel case in a briefcase. (But hang on; I predict that such an action toward a netizen will trigger a conflagration, leading to a wildfire, in the field of Philippine politics, and the ignorant people holding power will have their incompetence duly exposed.)

I suspect that “selected” public officials are the beneficiaries of the libel clause – a provision that can entitle them to pursue their dastardly acts without impunity. Those acts won’t get punished justly, I tell you, if the brand of Filipino culture as we know it continues, and they won’t be likely to get punished in the future. Don’t count on it for 200 years. But at least such information has to be known by the populace who deserve more than campaign jingles and nauseous slogans that are all hot air. If even established journalists cower in fear of the libel suits and the litigation bankroll that wicked public officials have, what now of the common citizen who just wants to share information?

What about opinions? “Libel”, in this case, can become inflated into anything that the lawmakers want it to be. They reflect what Humpty Dumpty said to Alice: “”When I use a word….it means just what I choose it to mean.” This has been the formula for many election campaigns nationwide. “Progress” is “what will take place when you vote for me”, despite the resigned protest that barely anything nice is happening right now; just perpetuation of the same old broken stuff. “Pagbabago” is a change in the names of the holders of power but not of the power structure itself. “Taong bayan” is the mass of people discussed in abstract terms, thus dehumanized, but never viewed as people with impending needs at all times. And when someone disagrees, there is a danger of that being called “Libel”.

However, time will come that all the Humpty Dumpties of this country will get cracked and then all of their underlings and their relatives can’t do anything to bring them back again.

There are also technical issues involved. One of them is stated at length in this Philstar.com column: “If the person accused of libel is a foreigner blogging from another country, will RA 10175 enable Philippine authorities to take jurisdiction over the accused and impose its processes?” Raissa Robles has also discussed her concerns, all at length, in this blog. I wonder why the senators haven’t consulted the wisdom of crowds to make the law more reasonable? They can just use the Internet, if they still know how.

The Internet

None of the lawmakers’ machinations, if they intended any, will succeed. They’re not just running against bloggers; they’re running against the Internet itself, a benevolent behemoth that has no central point that can be killed. This quote from a Borges tale captures it most: “the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere”. To you, the old-timers who know of the Internet but not of its vastness, you will be chasing a quarry that runs everywhere but also runs nowhere. In other words, it’s unstoppable. Even if we agree with Sotto that any netizen should learn how to be responsible in online dealings, legislation is not the most efficient way to do it. Responsibility begins from the person, not from an indeterminate “above”.

Because the Net’s open, the world knows what we’re doing with it. Have you heard that the United Nations Human Rights Council just declared that the act of criminalizing libel is excessive and contrary to the spirit of its statures? If you haven’t, look it up; you have the United Nations as your ally just in case someone plays the “libel” game with you. This is also strange; if we are a country priding ourselves in our global proletariat, then at least our fundamental decency toward the people, especially with those of lower socioeconomic status than we are, should approach international standards.

Here is a moment for pause. The most diligent commenters during the early periods of the Internet – when it was as slow as a rice cooker – were experts in finesse when it comes to invective, which may qualify as libel in the Philippines under the law (at least for anyone who as the bank account to litigate as deep as deep can). Following is a characterization of finesse in invective by Christopher Locke, one of the authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto, a 2000 book describing the changes that the Internet, which was still gathering steam, will have brought at the turn of the millennium. There was no social networking back then, but look at the power that it can grant.

It was not a game, however, for the meek of heart. These engagements could be fierce. Even trying to separate the contestants could bring down a hail of sharp-tongued derision. Theories were floated and defended with extreme energy and enthusiasm, if not always with logical rigor. Opinions tended to run high on any given topic. Say you’d posted about your dog. And, look, you got a response! “Jim, you are a complete idiot. Your dog is so brain-damaged it won’t even hunt…”

…the point is not to extol flame wars, as amusing as some could be. Instead, it is to suggest a particular set of values that began to emerge in what linguists might call a well-bounded speech community. On the Net, you said what you meant and had better be ready to explain your position and how you’d arrived at it. Mouthing platitudes guaranteed that you would be challenged. Nothing was accepted at face value, or taken for granted. Everything was subject to question, revision, re-implementation, parody — whether it was an algorithm, a political philosophy or, God help you, an advertisement.

“I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it”, Thomas Jefferson said three centuries ago. We’re all for preventing harm, as indicated in the other clauses of RA 10175. But these measures should have been passed long ago. It needed only a darn push – a push that many observers see as politically-motivated – for it to pass. Now here is a clue about the everyday operating psychology of the people running our country. Expect that now that national elections are nearing, and names, which are ultimately nothing but sound and dust, will be on the forefront again. Perhaps the same sort of thinking process applies regarding discussions of the long-awaited Freedom of Information Act, which has been on the burner for so long already.

So what is our battle cry? We can say “Keep the Net open”, but we don’t have to worry about that, because it’s always open. We can just invoke plain constitutional freedom of expression. We can also invoke the need to have an informed legislature and populace embarking on lifelong learning during a time when technologies change faster than mindsets.

Or we can just let our words loose. No more preambles are needed to do that. Just dive your fingers into your keyboard and begin blogging. Or write the old-fashioned way with ink. Words have power. That’s why those in power are wary of them and willing to ration them if they can.

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