Warning: Possibly (?) Libelous Content
AN OPEN LETTER TO OUR SENATORS
15th CONGRESS OF THE PHILIPPINES
Welcome to the 21st Century, Senators. Time to wake up. Are you awake yet? Please wake up, I, citizen, have a request to make of you. The past two weeks seems evidence that most of you were not.
I am referring to that odd reply by Senator Escudero to questions from media, concerning how changes were made to the law after the period for amendments. I dismiss the claimed possibilities of incompetence, neglect, or unmindfulness leading to inclusion of onerous provisions in RA 10175. That backhanded, awkward attempt at humility (“we made mistakes”) leaves me to conclude that what occurred was plain and simple misuse or abuse of power, depending perhaps only on whether you miscalculated whether the President would either veto or sign RA 10175 into law. I don’t know; the legislative process is inscrutable to me.
What bothers me is the completely hamfisted, clumsy way in which the prerogatives of the Senate were mislaid, in order to apply arguably bad law to the domain of electronic communication. Surely, you must realize that, these days, the Internet is a powerful medium by which the electorate share and form our opinions on many issues, including political issues. It is an outstandingly new property of this medium that we are no longer subject to just a one-way flow of information downward from the centers of power, through the filter of the news media. It allows horizontal transfer as well, as much of news and information between strangers, as of greetings and letters among friends. Use of the Internet is very very important to us. With our history, and the 21st of September so temporally close to the day of signing, we could not possibly have missed those insertions. Senator Guingona didn’t miss them; how could the rest of you have?
Now, I make no mistake of assuming that all this communication only builds communities, or even mostly contains useful matter with great civic import. A lot of it is, indeed, drivel: Irrelevant to uses other than to satisfy the message senders’ private goals. And some of this communication, we have all seen, is intended for pernicious ends. I think Stuxnet and spam.
And yet: a good deal of what we citizens exchange between us will pertain to issues of the day, and indeed reflect much disappointment, anger, or even rage at the failings of government, or of specific persons in government. Or else placid complacency when things run well; when things promised by politicians turn out well. Thus it will continue to prove itself of great utility to an electorate that wants to participate responsibly, and effectively, in a democratic society.
This should come as no surprise: The sheer ease with which this technology eliminates barriers of distance, time, and greatly extends the scope of connections between persons, make it qualitatively different from traditional print and broadcast media. Government can make much better use of it than it does now. We regular citizens already try to, and do: Sharing news, links to opinions and articles, and, yes, even kvetching and cursing in the most colorful ways imaginable about incompetence, waste, and corruption. It is thus, in part, functioning well enough as a venting mechanism to bleed off unspent energy, as more citizens become less complacent about our shared problems.
You would have been well advised to tread lightly within this domain, and helped pave the way instead for the entire government to adjust slowly to the reality (and possibilities for transparency, and citizen participation) that it presents.
But the Senate did not comport itself as though you were all well advised. Indeed, it is difficult to comprehend that you could have possibly been well advised without a working CICT to provide policy guidance. Instead, you have collectively caused to be signed into law a very dangerous document, which impact in cyberspace and in real civil society will be felt by generations, long after your time in office has gone. For most of us, this came as a big surprise. To my mind, it only makes matters worse that Mr Sotto and others continue to avoid one of several issues with RA 10175, which is that it extends bad law (concerning libel, detailed in Article 355 of the Revised Penal Code) to extend to speech in the domain of cyberspace as well. Hell, Mr Sotto owns up to making that insertion.
The man, Mr Tito Sotto, is not only devious, having contrived to violate parliamentary process*; he is also apparently unfit to speak as a Senator, being unable to see that extending “cybercrime” to include libel makes bad law (per United Nations Human Rights Council statement) encompass speech in cyberspace as well. Perhaps this just indicates a difference of opinion against those held by Senators Honasan and Escudero. Still, two wrongs do not make a right; it only broadens the scope of the defect. He appears, quite possibly, to be making statements purely out of bravado. Most certainly, he did not, and does not speak on my behalf, nor on behalf of many, many others who have legitimate uses for the Internet yet quite rightly fear the repercussions of this law on our civic freedoms.
(Never mind for now that we, the public, have heard not a single word from, say, someone from the Senate Ethics Committee, but at least one of his peers, censuring Mr Tito Sotto, for such blatant dishonesty, denying his act of demonstrated plagiarism, even after undeniable proof was found. Not a word of remonstration, to at least assure the public that that august body, as we Filipinos do, value integrity and the ability to enunciate his own views as a leader should. That man’s continuing presence there is a stain on the Senate institution, not least as he has subsequently shown himself to be truly an enemy of our nation’s democratic ideals. And so, not having acted the part, he will receive neither honorific nor title of Senator from me here; neither do I address him in my entreaty below, as I do not have confidence in his capabilities, notwithstanding his popularity by which he gained that position of honor.)
I, citizen, ask you to please, please
- take immediate steps to act on proposals by Senator Escudero (SBN-2162), Senator Honasan (SBN-3244), and Senator Guingona to decriminalize libel, and to remove onerous provisions of R.A. 10175; and
- facilitate, by means at your disposal as Senators,
to facilitate speedy formation of an advisory council (to function in the stead of members of a Commission on Information and Communications Technology) to draw up a technical analysis of the requirements for implementing the remaining parts of R.A. 10175 in a coherent manner.
Antonio Victor Andrada Hilario
* I understand from listening to lawyers speaking at online fora dissecting RA 10175, that there is that period for amendments.
P.S. It would go a long way toward rehabilitating Senator Mr Sotto were other members of Senate to prevail upon him to actively, visibly take part in remedying the very defects that he introduced, and that he apologize for committing that breach of process, don’t you think?
P.P.S. Not being a lawyer, I think the only element missing from my jibes at Mr Sotto that they constitute libel is the element of malice – although I must admit to hoping his political career ends permanently after this term, and that this open letter convinces many that he should not ever find his way back to political office.
Thoughts following reading Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity In A Connected Age (2010) (ISBN 978-1-59420-253-7), in a bid to make sense of recent events (i.e. find conceptual glue to piece together my very, very fragmented notions of how things came to this point).