Originally published on CMFR website on 19 July 2019.
If passed into law, Senate Bill Number 9, the “Anti-False Content Act” would not only abridge free expression and press freedom that is protected by Article III Section 4 of the Constitution. As law, it will further lower the bar of democratic discourse by limiting the online discussion of public issues to subjects considered safe and the expression of views and opinions to those approved by government.
Introduced by Senator Vicente Sotto III, the bill strikes at the heart of Internet freedom, regulating if not outright policing the content of cyberspace in the Philippines. It mandates stiff prison terms and fines ranging from PHP 200,000 to PHP 2,000,000 against individuals who “create and/or publish” false and misleading content in social media sites, blogs and websites, as well as the “intermediaries” or platforms which carry the content, such as Facebook and Twitter.
A fundamental issue in any attempt to penalize the creation and dissemination of false information is the identification of the persons or entities authorized to decide what is false and what is not. The Sotto bill empowers the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to determine permissible content, to censor online information on any platform according to their judgment. These officials can order the information to be corrected, taken down, or blocked. These authorities can evaluate academic studies, scientific findings, religious and spiritual ideas that are cited or posted on the Internet, and consider these dangerous and threatening to public interest.
Rather than wait for a complaint, the DOJ can, on its own initiative, issue any of the above orders to the administrators of offending platforms. Claiming to protect “public interest,” the bill defines the term loosely as “anything that affects national security, public health, public safety, public order, confidence in the government, and the international relations of the Philippines.”
Should accused individuals or organizations refuse or fail to heed the order to correct, take down or block what the DOJ/PNP/NBI deems to be “false content”, they can be penalized with prison terms as well as fines, including the administrators of the platforms.
Under the provisions of SB Number 9, every individual communicating through the Internet, through a blog, a website, or social media, is fair game to government’s review and judgment. The law if passed would cover the broad sweep of all media, as most media organizations generate content for their online sites.
News providers on print, television or radio would as original publishers be similarly affected if content they produce is found offensive and flows through or are streamed through their respective online platforms.
The harm that false information can inflict is undeniable. But there is far greater harm in authorizing government agencies to decide what is fake or factual news, false or accurate conclusions, correct or mistaken findings. Assigning agencies who deal with criminality and violations of law guarantees a most limited scope for the arbitration of truth.
Every government has a stake in favorable publicity, whether generated through the old media of print and broadcast or the blogs, websites, news sites, and social media networks in the Internet. Inevitably, the power to police media content will be abused. Thus, the response to counter “fake news” cannot be assigned to just one institution, but should involve diverse efforts, involving different sectors, both public and private, including organized civil society.
Senator Sotto is either unaware of, or has chosen to ignore, the fact that measures are already in place to correct false information. Educational institutions have acknowledged their responsibility to assist the public to distinguish between what is true and what is false and to evaluate sources of content for credibility or worthiness of trust. Not only is the Sotto bill dangerous to the fundamental rights to free expression and press freedom; it is also unnecessary.
In turning to agencies dealing with crime to address the harm of “fake news,” the bill hints what its true intent and its passage prevented. The involvement of security forces hints at another motivation that has little to do with upholding truth and facts. This bill is more likely concerned about controlling communication, policing and regulating public discourse, and limiting political debate.
Like all media, the Internet is space that can expand good or spread evil. Like old media, it has been useful to dark forces, including those of the state. But as space for free expression, its regulation cannot be undertaken by the state and its agencies mandated to maintain law and order.
The orientation of the three agencies will test, according to criminal standards, what cannot be criminal, except in clearly mandated exceptions. The regulation of the Internet must begin with the wisdom of the Constitution which is to provide for the full unfettered exercise of free expression.
CMFR calls for widespread public scrutiny of this latest attempt to further apply police powers on our media and to diminish the power of all citizens, not just those chosen and selected influencers, to communicate their messages in the market of ideas.