Customers in a shop that offers internet services in Quezon City. Image Credit: EPA

Manila: An international rights watchdog said a new Philippine law governing the use of the Internet would also impact on freedom of expression as much it aims to address cybercrimes.

In a statement, the New York-based International Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the Cybercrime Prevention Act provides authorities with “excessive and unchecked” powers that could stifle freedom of speech.

“A new Philippine cybercrime law drastically increases punishments for criminal libel and gives authorities excessive and unchecked powers to shut down websites and monitor online information,” HRW said.

Early this month, President Benigno Aquino signed the measure into law.

It is expected to take effect in a few weeks as authorities prepare its implementing guidelines.

For years, the Philippines had made do without a law governing cyberspace, as a result, cybercriminals had regarded the country as a haven where they can conduct crimes such as cybersex and other similar offenses. But the new edict appears to address the concern over exploitation with an overkill reaction. Another concern is that the new law may be used by certain interest groups, including the government, to stifle freedom of expression.

Brad Adams, HRW Asia director said: “The law’s criminal penalties for online libel and other restrictions are a serious threat to free expression in the Philippines. Several legal cases have been filed in the Philippines Supreme Court, including for the law to be declared unconstitutional because it violates guarantees to free expression contained in the Philippines constitution and human rights treaties ratified by the Philippines. The cybercrime law needs to be repealed or replaced,” he said.

Adams further noted that the new law “violates Filipinos’ rights to free expression and it is wholly incompatible with the Philippine government’s obligations under international law.”

The new law specifies several new acts of cybercrime. Among those prohibited under the edict are “cybersex,” online child pornography, illegal access to computer systems or hacking, online identity theft, and spamming.

Adams said the new law adapts conventional libel laws to become applicable to cyberspace.

The Cybercrime Prevention Act carries a section on libel specifies that criminal libel, is already detailed in article 355 of the Philippines Revised Penal Code.

“It will now apply to acts committed through a computer system or any other similar means which may be devised in the future.”

Aside from this, the new law :”drastically increases the penalty for computer-related libel, with the minimum punishment raised 12-fold, from six months to six years. The maximum punishment is doubled from six to 12 years in prison.”

“Anybody using popular social networks or who publishes online is now at risk of a long prison term should a reader ‑ including government officials – bring a libel charge,” Adams said. “Allegedly libelous speech, online or offline, should be handled as a private civil matter, not a crime.”