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JESSICA ZAFRA | The Cybercrime Law: The Return of the Thought Police
The online news portal of TV5

It was fitting that as the 40th anniversary of the declaration of martial law drew near, the hot topic on social networks, blogs and traditional media in the Philippines was the end of freedom of expression. 

1.1. Granted, the exchange of views on freedom of expression was not actually connected to martial law, but I like the symmetry.  

1.2. Reactions to the martial law anniversary include:

1.2.1. Selective amnesia. "Do we have to talk about that again? It's all in the past, let's move on, etc."

1.2.2. Feigned indifference. "I barely remember that time, I was too young/wasn’t born yet," she declared, adding an extra layer of anti-aging cream to her laugh lines and making an appointment for non-surgical liposuction.

1.2.3. Nostalgia, two kinds of. "During martial law there was peace, order, cleanliness, and people followed the rules. Filipinos are unruly, undisciplined people who can only be ruled by a dictator." Former comrades from the underground remember when they were young, brave and idealistic, and wonder how they they ended up old, bourgeois, and probably alcoholic.

1.2.4. Bewilderment. "But Imelda Marcos is so fabulous and Borgy is my Facebook friend. Okay, if that really happened, how come Bongbong Marcos is in the Senate?"

2. The free speech discussion was triggered by the passage of the Cybercrime Law with its disturbing "takedown clause".

2.1. News5's resident legal analyst, Atty. Mel Sta. Maria, has compared Section 19 of the Cybercrime Law to the “sleeping provision” of the 1935 Constitution that President Marcos used to perpetuate his rule. 

2.2. Under the new law you can be imprisoned for libel even if you don't write anything yourself. If you repost an article or publish a comment that its subject considers false and malicious, your site can be taken down, your computer taken away, your files read, your ass hauled to court and thrown in jail.

2.3. And this is why neck veins have been popping en masse. Filipinos are among the world's most avid users of social media.  

2.3.1. We need an outlet for expressing our thoughts, hopes, opinions, and stuff that falls under the general category, "Wala lang". A lot of it is over-sharing that may cause regret and embarrassment (or provide evidence for the annulment of marriage) in the years to come, but we are an expressive people and it is our right. It's almost as if Mark Zuckerberg invented Facebook for Filipinos. 

2.3.2. Whenever something unpleasant happens, be it a terrible meal at an overpriced restaurant or a traffic altercation or the sight of a grown man threatening his son’s classmate or a public official demanding a bribe, we report it on social media and blogs. They're free, they're fast, they get the word out before the traditional media does. Newspapers and television networks get information from online media. We are, in effect, our very own print and broadcast networks. Everyone's a media mogul. Given the speed with which these personal reports go online, mistakes are made. Facts are not checked as thoroughly as they should be. Reputations are damaged - hopefully not forever, and people have short memories now that they have Google and clouds to remember stuff for them. Online readers have to learn to distinguish reliable sources from those with hidden agendas. But for the most part, the online exercise of freedom of expression is a good thing. 

2.3.3. The Cybercrime Law interferes with our freedom to say exactly what’s on our minds, unfiltered by corporate interests or official policies. 

3. All right, the Cybercrime Law has the potential to make real the Thought Police from George Orwell's novel, 1984. It may be that nothing will happen, and the takedown clause will never be invoked. Why are we so worked up about something that might never happen?

3.1. For the purpose of this discussion let us assume that the authors of the Cybercrime Law are not out to get us. Try, okay, try.  Perhaps they’ve noticed the meanness and pettiness that goes on in the social media, or read the comments posted by angry trolls on the most innocuous YouTube videos, and they think they're protecting us from these horrors. 

3.1.1. Seriously, I don't think politicians wake up in the morning cackling, "Which freedom shall we take away today? How else can we oppress the people?" On the contrary, most of them probably believe they're doing what’s best for us. Fine, some of them. However, their definition of "what's best for us" tends to be indistinguishable from "what’s best for them". After all, we elected them to represent us, i.e. to speak on our behalf.

3.1.2. This should teach us to be more judicious (or at least less random and "Wala lang") about choosing our representatives. Of course elections are by definition a popularity contest, but let’s take the trouble to find out what the candidate thinks about the vital issues. Or whether he thinks at all. 

3.2. Why are we so worked up about something that might never happen? Short answer: Because martial law happened. 

3.2.1. Under martial law the media was under government control. We heard only the stories that the dictatorship wanted us to hear. The Internet was still a secret project of the Cold War superpowers; we had no outlets for expressing our opinions. We did what Malacañang said. Whether it was out of fear, complacency, or a reluctance to consider other options, we toed the line.

3.2.2. Then we finally snapped and threw out the despot. And since then we have been making up for those years of meek, unquestioning obedience to authority. We are impetuous, yes, and dramatic. We tend to over-react. And when there is a perceived threat to our freedoms, we will not shut up. We did that under martial law and look what happened. 

3.2.3. It is dangerous to think that a society in which everyone believes the same things and thinks the same way is a healthy society. Democracy is the sound of millions of people disagreeing with each other. Deal with it.

3.3. So three decades after it officially ended, in the face of indifference and amnesia, martial law remains a relevant topic.