Digital rights in the Philippines (and what the national government can do)

·Contributor
·15 min read
NARRA, PHILIPPINES - OCTOBER 17: Teofilo Tredes, 53, a para-enforcer for the Palawan NGO Network Inc. inside his shanty house working on his laptop on October 17, 2019 in Narra, Palawan, Philippines. UK-based watchdog Global Witness named the Philippines as the deadliest country for environment activists. According to their annual report, most land and environmental activists had been murdered while defending their homes, land, and other natural resources from being exploited by mining, logging and agribusiness as countless more have been silenced through tactics such as death threats, arrests, lawsuits, as well as smear campaigns. Such tactics are some of the many digital rights issues that prevail in the Philippines. (Photo by Jes Aznar/Getty Images)
NARRA, PHILIPPINES - OCTOBER 17: Teofilo Tredes, 53, a para-enforcer for the Palawan NGO Network Inc. inside his shanty house working on his laptop on October 17, 2019 in Narra, Palawan, Philippines. UK-based watchdog Global Witness named the Philippines as the deadliest country for environment activists. According to their annual report, most land and environmental activists had been murdered while defending their homes, land, and other natural resources from being exploited by mining, logging and agribusiness as countless more have been silenced through tactics such as death threats, arrests, lawsuits, as well as smear campaigns. Such tactics are some of the many digital rights issues that prevail in the Philippines. (Photo by Jes Aznar/Getty Images)

Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. only briefly touched on digital rights in his first ever State of the Nation Address (SONA) last July. There, he urged the national government to digitize their services, passing the burden of responsibility to the Department of Information and Communications Technology (DICT). For the young Marcos, there is value in not only addressing issues such as sluggish Internet connection but also in digitally archiving important documents.

Lawyer and newly appointed DICT chief Ivan Uy shared the same sentiments, telling the Manila Times last June 30 that keeping Filipinos connected to the Internet will be the agency’s top priority. Additionally, in his turnover ceremony a month later, Uy noted the need for swifter and smoother e-governance with a new and improved digital infrastructure.

However, as early as April 2022, the Foundation for Media Alternatives (FMA) and UP Internet Freedom Network (UP INTERNET) have already recognized such issues, provided possible remedies, and more with the Philippine Digital Rights Electoral Agenda.

Based on the Philippine Declaration on Internet Rights and Principles and other contemporary digital rights issues, the nine-point Agenda is described as a “checklist of priority issues” while also serving as “a call for [then] incoming government officials to take action on pushing for a free and robust digital environment in the country.”

Roughly two months since the 2022 National Elections, and outside of the promises made by Marcos and Uy, the national government and its concerned agencies are yet to publicly announce any plans related to digital rights. So, what can the likes of DICT learn from this?

Teachers prepare online lectures for the opening of classes at a school in Valenzuela City in Metro Manila, Philippines on October 2, 2020. The academic year will start on Monday, October 5. (Photo by Lisa Marie David/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Teachers prepare online lectures for the opening of classes at a school in Valenzuela City in Metro Manila, Philippines on October 2, 2020. The academic year will start on Monday, October 5. (Photo by Lisa Marie David/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Make sure you’re connected

A 2022 report from Hootsuite and We Are Social ranked the Philippines second in terms of how much time 16 to 64 years old spent on the Internet. Past statistics paint a different picture, however, with the country bearing the title of the second slowest Internet speed in the countries affiliated with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in late 2020. Though September 2021 showed some improvement, the Internet remained costly.

To contextualize these issues, look no further than the sudden shift from face-to-face classes to the online remote set-up due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As examples, while teachers from a Siargao village had to take two hour trips via motorboats just to print physical copies of modules in the nearest city due to limited power and Internet, Zamboanga del Sur educators had to carry the burden of buying school supplies when needed.

Students likewise struggle with renewing data plans, reaching Internet access points, as well as buying expensive gadgets. Without the means to finish academic tasks, they are at risk of being delayed or (in more extreme cases) dropping-out of classes. As accessibility concerns remain prevalent two years into the pandemic, calls for a safe return to physical classes and for easing academic requirements recurred in social media and in physical protests.

To “improve the quality and affordability of Internet access by all Filipinos,” the Agenda called to liberalize the telecommunications industry and to widen the scope of networks through the sharing of cellular towers between Internet service providers (ISPs), as well as through free public Wi-Fi.

VICE reported that due to Globe Telecom and PLDT, Inc. dominating the scene, and the Public Telecommunications Policy Act of the Philippines’ requirement of erecting 400,000 telephone lines, there is little competition in the Philippines. Little competition means little innovation. As such, the Agenda called to pass the Open Access In Data Transmission Bill, which legislators hoped would boost the national economy and lessen Internet costs.

The DICT also released guidelines for a common tower policy, which include telecom companies registering and being assessed by the agency. ICT policy researcher Grace Mirandilla-Santos enthused in an August 2022 statement with Philstar.com that networks and providers sharing costs for a tower will allow them “to reach more communities and focus more on improving their service.”

Other attempts at establishing free public Wi-Fi recur across the DICT’s history, most notably with the Free Wi-Fi for All program (which currently has at least 4,000 active hotspots, per the initiative’s website). Meanwhile, Uy revealed plans for a “BroadBand ng Masa” program, hoping to reach geographically-isolated and disadvantaged areas (GIDA) through hubs powered by SpaceX’s Starlink initiative.

The Agenda also called for accessibility for persons with disabilities (PWDs) and other skills, with CNN saying in a 2020 culture report that “meaningful” access to the Internet means also considering their needs. In addition to laws such as the Magna Carta for Disabled Persons of 1992, initiatives that seem to address this need include disability-friendly websites and policy-making deals between the National Council on Disability Affairs (NCDA) and other agencies.

Whatever concrete plans Uy has on disability-centered access remain to be seen, however.

This photo taken on December 10, 2020 shows protesters with slogans against
This photo taken on December 10, 2020 shows protesters with slogans against "red-tagging" on their hats and placards as they take part in a protest to commemorate International Human Rights Day near the presidential palace in Manila. - A torrent of misinformation on the social media platform has put activists, journalists, politicians and lawyers in the firing line as President Rodrigo Duterte's government and military out alleged supporters of a decades-old Maoist insurgency. (Photo by Maria Tan/AFP via Getty Images)

The writing’s on the wall

Even with existing laws related to digital and human rights, Filipinos remain vulnerable to different forms of cyberattacks. An issue worsened by the implementation of hotly contested policies such as the Anti Terror Law and the currently vetoed SIM Card Registration Bill: both of which involves mass surveillance.

Despite aiming for “national security,” the often nicknamed “Terror Law” raised eyebrows due to its vague definition of terrorism. Under this law, any form of dissent, whether it would be posting banners or protesting peacefully, may be subjected to criminal charges. Such is an issue often raised as the numbers of progressives harassed and red-tagged on and offline, and even jailed or killed, grow. This is more so with the state’s counterinsurgency campaign, which has now stretched to baselessly accusing anyone critical of the state with almost no consequences.

Meanwhile, the SIM Card Registration Bill was drafted in the hopes of curbing mobile phone-related crimes, especially with the rise of phishing attempts through text messages. However, rights groups warned how handing-out personal information to telecom companies and government agencies may only leave users prone to data breaches and other attacks. This would have been in the same way that the Anti Terror Law would curtail dissent.

As users would have been required to register with their real names, LGBTQIA+ rights group Bahaghari warned that the bill would disrespect the identities of transgender people.

Health workers conduct contact tracing during home visits of households with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients in Quezon City, Philippines on July 18, 2020. Quezon City ranks second among the areas with highest cases of COVID-19. Localized quarantine has been imposed in several compounds with confirmed cases to prevent the further spread of the virus.(Photo by Lisa Marie David/NurPhoto)
Health workers conduct contact tracing during home visits of households with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients in Quezon City, Philippines on July 18, 2020. Quezon City ranks second among the areas with highest cases of COVID-19. Localized quarantine has been imposed in several compounds with confirmed cases to prevent the further spread of the virus.(Photo by Lisa Marie David/NurPhoto)

Privacy becomes a concern even in the COVID-19 pandemic. Notably, citizens are required to provide their body temperatures, contact details, full names and other personal information through contact tracing forms, which are distributed in public areas. Additionally, although there is a Data Privacy Act (DPA), the National Privacy Commission (NPC) emphasized that concerned agencies are allowed to access and share with proper authorities necessary health-related information.

Recently, the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) believed that the contact-tracing forms may be a factor in the text-based scams, as there have now been reports of messages containing the full names of users. They also didn’t rule-out the possibility of money and messaging apps or data breaches being behind these incidents.

Related to this, Retired Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio sounded the alarm last 2020 on Dito Telecommunity getting the green light to build cellular towers in military camps. Specifically, critics took issue with Dito’s partnership with China Telecom, which Carpio believed would give the Chinese government a “listening device” on Filipinos. Even outside military bases, the construction of Dito towers were opposed by Filipino citizens for similar concerns.

Finally, a 2020 Plan International study revealed that seven out of 10 girls experienced gender discrimination and have received threats of sexual and physical abuse online. Related to this, Sen. Risa Hontiveros slammed how sexual predators (including pedophiles) solicit and distribute materials through Facebook, Telegram, YouTube, and What’sApp, lamenting how that simply reporting them only delays their return.

Because of these, the Agenda called for the immediate junking of policies that dabble on mass-surveillance (including the Anti-Terror Law and the SIM Card Registration Bill) and for the Internet to be a safe space that would “destigmatize victims of cyber trafficking” and for other sectors like the LGBTQIA+ community. It also called for the immediate shutdown of unlicensed Philippine offshore gaming operators (POGOs) and to closely monitor international involvement in telecommunication matters in keeping people safe online.

Employees, supporters, and press freedom advocates hold placards as they gather in front of ABS-CBN headquarters in Quezon City, Philippines. (Photo by: Basilio H. Sepe/Majority World/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Employees, supporters, and press freedom advocates hold placards as they gather in front of ABS-CBN headquarters in Quezon City, Philippines. (Photo by: Basilio H. Sepe/Majority World/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

If your mind’s neglecting

The NTC pulling the plug on the franchise of the Alto Broadcasting System and Chronicle Broadcasting Network (ABS-CBN) was seen as one of the biggest affronts to press freedom in Filipino history. One of the two biggest in the Philippines, alongside the Global Media Arts (GMA) Network, ABS-CBN’s absence left a wide information gap that is yet to be filled, especially with regards to disaster communication.

Further widening this gap are different attacks on press freedom, including the prevalence of disinformation in Facebook, YouTube, and other platforms. In addition to red-tagging, such propaganda pieces from supporters make it seem that the time of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. was an economic “golden age” and that the Marcoses had no criminal history linked to their names (despite evidence debunking both). Such issues became more prevalent at the news that pro-Marcos would be accredited to cover Malacañang developments.

Besides the ongoing controversy with ABS-CBN, the Philippines was labeled as the “world’s second most dangerous country for media personnel” in 2017 for a reason: nearly 200 journalists were killed since 1986, Internet trolls harass media workers for their critical reportage, and mainstream news group Rappler was ordered to close-up shop on the orders of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

For Rappler’s critical coverage of the Duterte administration, their CEO and Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa is the receiving end of legal attacks, including being accused of cyber libel (with former writer Reynaldo Santos, Jr.) for a 2012 piece concerning businessman Wilfredo Keng.

The national government has had a history of downplaying or outright denying the negative implications of certain events. These include the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the environmental hazards of the Dolomite Beach, and most recently the worsening inflation (with Marcos, disagreeing with the Philippine Statistics Authority’s [PSA] findings, said that it was “not that high”).

Supporters of Philippine presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr livestream outside his campaign headquarters after his landslide presidential election victory, in Mandaluyong City, Metro Manila, on May 10, 2022. The son of late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos cemented a landslide presidential election victory on May 10, as Filipinos bet on a familiar dynasty to ease rampant poverty – dismissing warnings the tarnished clan will deepen corruption and weaken democracy. (Photo by Jam Sta. Rosa/AFP via Getty Images)
Supporters of Philippine presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr livestream outside his campaign headquarters after his landslide presidential election victory, in Mandaluyong City, Metro Manila, on May 10, 2022. The son of late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos cemented a landslide presidential election victory on May 10, as Filipinos bet on a familiar dynasty to ease rampant poverty – dismissing warnings the tarnished clan will deepen corruption and weaken democracy. (Photo by Jam Sta. Rosa/AFP via Getty Images)

Related to this, Open Data Labs Jakarta’s Michael Cañares wrote that even with a pending Freedom of Information (FOI) bill, the executive order (EO) version of this for the executive branch is seen more as a smokescreen. Specifically, he lamented how there were initially 166 pieces of information, including matters related to criminal investigations and foreign affairs that may be undisclosed. Cañares also highlighted the issue of “open-washing,” wherein the administration would only hand over data that is “politically convenient to disclose.”

For more transparent transactions, the Agenda not only called for the immediate passage of the FOI bill into law (described as being “languishing in Congress since the 1990s.”), and to mandate all government agencies to abide by it. It also called for the review of policies related to “fake news” (and calling for a considerate and thorough look at such measures before implementation) and to decriminalize libel.

Additionally, the Agenda highlighted the importance of digital literacy educational programs, which may lead users to be much more knowledgeable in navigating the Internet. Related to this, it mentioned that free, libre, and open source software (FLOSS) would help in lowering “the overall cost of ICT and reduce the country’s dependence on proprietary software and computer applications.”

This photo taken on December 10, 2021 shows siblings Eugene (L) and Ginger Arboleda giving a demonstration on how to play Axie Infinity, an NFT game where players earn tokens that can be exchanged for cryptocurrency or cash, during an interview with AFP in Taguig, suburban Manila. - Axie Infinity is a blockchain-based play-to-earn game that exploded in popularity in developing nations such as the Philippines as Covid-19 has destroyed jobs and forced many to stay home. (Photo by Jam Sta. Rosa/AFP via Getty Images)
This photo taken on December 10, 2021 shows siblings Eugene (L) and Ginger Arboleda giving a demonstration on how to play Axie Infinity, an NFT game where players earn tokens that can be exchanged for cryptocurrency or cash, during an interview with AFP in Taguig, suburban Manila. - Axie Infinity is a blockchain-based play-to-earn game that exploded in popularity in developing nations such as the Philippines as Covid-19 has destroyed jobs and forced many to stay home. (Photo by Jam Sta. Rosa/AFP via Getty Images)

Stumble you might fall

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, more online economic opportunities have sprung-up. Among these was the “gig economy:” a market that focuses more on short-term and freelance work that became more prevalent in the country due to rising unemployment rates. Its growing prominence led to the national government signing the Philippine Digital Workforce Competitiveness Bill into law.

But for every leap forward comes a drawback. Although Filipino freelancers can get mostly digital, flexible work, there are instances when their status as “employees” are put into question. In turn, according to an Asia Business Law Journal story, this limits how much the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) can step-in.

In a bid to generate P11.7 billion worth of public funds, Marcos plans to impose a value-added tax (VAT) over digital services. This includes streaming platforms such as Spotify and Netflix, as well as digital security applications such as antivirus software and virtual private networks (VPNs). As the peso loses its value, and as oil prices are still skyrocketing (which then leads to food products and public transport being more expensive), critics see this more as yet another unnecessary burden to the people.

Speaking of unnecessary burdens, the National Grid Corp. of the Philippines (NGCP) raised a Red Alert over Luzon last Monday (September 12, 2022). This was after insufficient power led to outages in areas such as Metro Manila (where about a million consumers briefly lost electricity).

It was recurring issues such as these that Marcos hoped to resolve by reviving the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, but critics said that the costs and potential nuclear damages would not be worth the effort. Additionally, more problems may follow after the International Trade Administration (ITA) reporting that the Malampaya gas fields (the source of 30% of Luzon’s power) would be depleted by 2024.

Cryptocurrency (a digital form of currency that also rose to prominence in the COVID-19 pandemic) is another double-edged sword. While currently popular, the United Kingdom-based think tank Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) warned how unregulated transactions can lead to brankrupting clients.

Even other works that use cryptocurrency such as non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and the NFT-based game Axie Infinity are not safe from criticism. While the latter had players abandoning ship due to its unpredictable nature, the former drew flak for complex ownership issues and potential environmental damage did nothing to improve its image.

Looking into the future, the Agenda called to “promote and encourage the use of the Internet for socio-economic empowerment and innovation” and to “encourage and enable sustainable use of the Internet.” To achieve these, the Agenda called for digital service taxes to “not create nor contribute to barriers [their] accessibility and affordability,” and for initiatives that support start-ups, online businesses, and gig economy workers.

The Agenda also highlighted Republic Acts 6969 (Toxic Substances and Hazardous and Nuclear Wastes) and 9003 (Ecological Solid Waste Management Act) as policies that can help reduce e-waste.

Outside of the Agenda itself, there are other steps that were said to have the potential to address other digital rights issues. These include limited use of and authorized research into blockchain technology with the Blockchain Technology Development Act, establishing an eCommerce Bureau to support consumers through the Internet Transactions Act, and remedying the Philippines’ energy woes by amending the Electric Power Industry Reform Act.

Reuben Pio Martinez is a news writer who covers stories on various communities and scientific matters. He regularly tunes in to local happenings. The views expressed are his own.

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