MANILA, PHilippines — An Internet standards and policy group has raised concerns that the recently passed cybercrime bill in the Senate may be far worse than the anti-piracy measures earlier shelved in the US Congress.
But Senator Edgardo Angara, author of Senate Bill No. 2796 or the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, emphasized that the measure is not a threat to curtail Internet freedom, insisting that it will “protect [users] from abuse on cyberspace.”
In a post on its official Facebook group, the Philippine chapter of the Internet Society (ISOC-PH) drew attention to Section 13 of the bill, which it said was “not present in previous versions” of the bill.
Section 13 provides for measures 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.”
“While they carefully avoid using the words — Internet and website — Sec. 13 basically allows broad Internet censorship, far worse than SOPA,” stressed Winthrop Yu, member of ISOC-PH, formerly known as the Philippine Internet Commerce Society (PICS), which he said was the one who “first initiated Cybercrime legislation and has contributed to it since 2001 or over a decade.”
Yu further alleged that the cybercrime bill is just among the many little steps that would lead to Internet censorship in the Philippines.
“Internet censorship in this country was first snuck-in under the ‘sheep’s clothing’ of the Anti-Child [Pornography] bill while we were distracted by the upcoming presidential elections,” Yu said.
He added that lawmakers might once again be using the current impeachment trial of Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato Corona to distract the public from the passage of the cybercrime bill.
Mindful of civil rights
In a statement, Angara said he was mindful of protecting the civil rights and freedoms of Internet users when he crafted the bill, insisting that by putting a legal framework for prosecuting cybercrime, “the measure actually safeguards our rights and extends their protection into our digital space.”
“Likewise, by designating the roles of certain government agencies and creating new ones wherever appropriate, we provide a holistic national cyber security policy,” he explained.
Angara stressed that they have consulted with various stakeholders while crafting the bill, including IT experts, IT lawyers, members of the Philippine Computer Emergency Response Team (PH-CERT), the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Philippine National Police (PNP), the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and the Information and Communications Technology Office (ICTO), among others.
“Clearly, the freedoms we enjoy from high-speed connectivity coincide with expanded opportunities to commit crimes. I sponsored the bill precisely because real harm can be done,” the lawmaker said.
“I understand many people are apprehensive on account of the global uproar caused by the (Stop Online Piracy Act) in the U.S. But the Cybercrime Prevention Act is in no way its Filipino version, and should not be mistaken for it,” he added.
Protecting Internet users
In an email interview with InterAksyon.com, Angel Lito Averia, president of PH-CERT, one of the groups consulted by Angara in drafting the bill, said Sec. 15 is a “takedown provision” which allows law-enforcement agencies to restrict access to websites clearly committing cybercrime.
Various groups have expressed concern with the provision, especially since it only requires “prima facie evidence” for a website to be taken down. Prima facie evidence typically means evidence that is enough to support the allegations in a complaint, unless otherwise refuted by other evidence.
“So, if the website is obviously a site that may be engaging in a cybercrime, then the law enforcement agencies can order a takedown,” Averia said.
The PH-CERT official cited a recent case, which the group handled, involving a phishing site hosted in an academic institution’s servers in the Philippines.
“The institution was not aware that its servers were being used,” Averia narrated. “Good thing is that they are cooperative and inspected their pages and took the appropriate action. Otherwise, I would have gone to either the CIDG or NBI who have field people to go to the academic institution physically and perhaps take over the servers.”
Averia conceded that this might be viewed as prior restraint of the freedom of speech enshrined in the constitution, but argued that when websites victimize Filipinos, “should not our law enforcement agencies empowered to protect the people by taking down the site?”
Long way to go
In the meantime, Averia pointed out that the provisions included in the Senate version of the cybercrime bill are not set in stone, since the lower house would still have to deliberate on its own version.
“Then there is still the Bicameral Conference Committee. Interested parties may still participate in crafting the final version of the bill at the House,” he added.
Once the bill becomes law, the DOJ and other agencies would have convene a technical working group to develop its Implementing Rules and Regulations, where Averia said the government can draft standards that could guide law enforcers.
“Perhaps that would include requesting the owners of the site server to investigate first, (before taking it down),” he said.
On critics comparing the cybercrime bill to SOPA in the US, Averia only had one thing to say: “My opinion is that there is an ocean of a difference between the two legislations.”