Whew. What a crazy couple of months it’s been here in the Philippines. While the country’s still in the heat of the Reproductive Health Bill battle, a new law was passed that made both pro- and anti-RH advocates pause in their tracks, gape at each other, and utter a collective, disbelieving “What?!” Last month, Pres. Aquino signed the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 into law, an act ostensibly meant to prevent abuse of technology but managed instead to threaten personal privacy, the right to due process, freedom of expression, and other civil liberties. It went into effect on Oct. 3, inciting an uproar of protest and outrage heard around the world.
I honestly think that part of the problem here is that many of our legislators simply don’t understand the massive, unique, and ever-changing culture of the Internet. Heck, the senate president doesn’t even know what a blog is. When you don’t understand something, it’s easy to either dismiss it, or demonize it. Thus we have politicians trying to tell us not to make such a big deal out of the loss of online freedom, while others are standing firm behind the Cybercrime Law in the belief that it will shield us from the evils they imagine are lurking in every website. This technological naïveté doesn’t surprise me, and in the ordinary course of events, I don’t really care. I don’t expect every politician to have a Twitter account, or to show up for a Reddit AMA. However, when they’re crafting a law that deals specifically with this technology, then I do expect them to educate themselves. How can anyone regulate what they can barely define? Do your freaking homework, ladies and gentlemen. Is that too much to ask?
On the other hand, there are also those politicians who do understand the power and scope of the Internet, and fear it. They know only too well that cyberspace is a venue for real, organic, and unrestrained political discourse that both reflects and influences the offline world. They know that the Internet is fostering a citizenry that questions, investigates, and debates everything, and will not hesitate to expose lies and cover-ups of any kind. You can pay off or intimidate media executives to manipulate the news in your favor, but you can’t silence the hundreds of online writers analyzing events independently. You can hire a staff to plagiarize bloggers for your speeches, but you can’t bribe every netizen who finds out. On the Internet, every voice has a megaphone and it only takes a few clicks to verify the facts, which is good news for democracy but bad news for those who are threatened by the truth. These are the people who will fight tooth-and-nail to preserve the Cybercrime Law as it is, and with the ignorance of their colleagues and the carelessness of others, they just might succeed.
But for now we have a reprieve. The Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order on implementing the law yesterday, which wouldn’t have been necessary in the first place if it hadn’t been carelessly rushed through the legislative process. And no one can deny that the process has been careless, inexcusably so. When Filipinos reacted in shock and dismay at some of the blazing red flags, they found out that they weren’t the only ones surprised. Even some of the legislators themselves were not fully aware of what they had created. Edgardo Angara, who authored the bill, seems baffled by some of its provisions, while Chiz Escudero and several other senators basically said, “Oops. We didn’t notice how bad it was when we voted for it.” (The irony increases when we recall that Angara and Escudero, among others, have actually filed bills decriminalizing libel, and now they’ve just approved a law punishing it for up to 12 years in jail.) Tito Sotto, who sneaked in the much-hated libel provision at the last minute, admitted that he wasn’t aware that online libel was already addressed in the constitution. Meanwhile, Senate President Enrile blamed Miriam Defensor-Santiago for not catching the flaws of the bill despite her Constitutional expertise, apparently because in an institution composed entirely of lawmakers, she was the only one they counted on to know the law. I truly believe that we have reached the pinnacle of government incompetence, ladies and gentlemen. At least, I dearly hope so, because I’m praying to God that it won’t get any worse.
Let me just state for the record that I am not against fair and sensible policies promoting responsible use of technology. The Internet is a double-edged sword, and we must learn to wield it wisely. But this defective bill, with its sloppy, ambiguous language and alarming provisions that violate civil liberties, should never have reached the president’s desk unrefined, and he should never have approved it. The fact is that modern communications technology is a new legal frontier which poses unique questions and is constantly evolving, so it deserves careful, adaptive legislation, not a haphazard law produced by distracted, uninformed politicians.
In contrast, the Reproductive Health bill, despite being supported by mountains of meticulous research as well as overwhelming public approval, is still struggling to be approved after almost 15 years. Of course, the biggest difference is that the influential Catholic Church has no problem with the Cybercrime Law, while it is pulling out all the stops against the RH Bill, even to the point of threatening to campaign against its supporters, separation of church and state be damned. Now that the long, excruciatingly drawn out debates are finally over, they’ve resorted to having senators and congressmen drag their feet through the amendment process, hoping to delay it indefinitely. Yet when they are called out on these dilatory tactics, the same lawmakers who couldn’t be bothered to plug the gaping holes in the Cybercrime Law respond by blinking big, innocent eyes at us and saying that they’re just being extra careful, really, and besides, there’s no need to rush. Never mind that the RH Bill is urgently needed by millions of women and children, for whom this issue is a matter of survival. Never mind them, our politicians need to make sure that they don’t offend the Catholic bishops first.
With these two controversial measures, the RH Bill and the Cybercrime Law, dominating the political landscape these days, the upside for us voters is that we can observe which ones of our public servants are worthy of the name. These politicians are slowly catching up to the fact that they are under a closer watch than ever, and that Filipinos are becoming more responsive and harder to fool. I urge my kababayans to keep their eyes on these issues and practice constant vigilance. Never underestimate what an ordinary person with a conscience and a willingness to get involved can accomplish. As for politicians, you should know that we’re learning from our mistakes. We expect performance, not personality, and we will remember those who fail to live up to their promises. Our current struggle to get the good governance we deserve is a rude awakening, but it’s an awakening nonetheless.